Big Ears 2017: Outside In Your Head

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Off The Festival Grid To Take In The Sun

Your head can be a space for everything if you’re willing to gift yourself the truth you need to survive these clips. I walked with fire eyes, I birthed the new, and the backdrops played fantastically as our inner demons feasted. The revelation lines thick, and the thesis was centered. My limbs carried my salty year up the gentle hills of a town receiving new members by the second. I was alive with you, and I’m alive now after you, after the fade. When it falls to shade and the air tilts colors, I see it all standing in the streets.

Big Ears 2017 felt like a throwback year. A young festival shouldn’t feel this way, but experimental trips allow themselves some course correction. Last year was my least favorite of all, not a bad time, just comparatively less fun seeing the music. My brother and I were more about the concrete and earth growing over it, we were too chatty and needed more than music, we needed to operate outside the confines of schedules, and release the messy realism we know so well. But this year felt gigantic on a scale of whats been right in the past regarding Big Ears. The social aesthetic, the shine on all the new flare of the city, the co-mingling scenes, new faces, and feeling good. It felt similar to four days in a weird spaceship packed with folks, yet this ship only traverses a couple of square miles, and hovers about 20 ft off the ground, until the night when it feels like you’re at 20,000 ft, and you never want to come down again. It’s safe to keep your festival characters up there though, so go ahead and let them be.

I quit my job last year to stay home with the kids, and work on this whole “struggling” Artist life. My Wife teaches Art in downtown Knoxville, she’s the real thing, and marvelous at her work. We have days of wonder and beauty, we have days of darkness, and regret. But this is life, this is how it works. Well beyond the blog posts, the art, the music, we all have that moment in the day when you truly see life, and you realize its happening, its all happening right now, and you need to peel back layers to feel good about being lost. Because buried in the truth, out there in your head, we are all lost, and that’s a beautiful reality if you learn to explore it. It’s just really scary, so we fill our little buckets of “to-dos” and we work away the soft unspoken stillness in the air. We collectively, and intentionally repress it. The expressions are loud, the movement in the mannerisms say it all, you just have to be willing to see it, and believe it. I think we try to on this weekend b/c the inspirations are so thick and there for us to sponge into our own mind trip, our own curation.

My brother Lee makes the trip every year from Michigan, that’s where I’m from as well. He’s an agricultural professor and organic farmer who launched his first hybrid business of sustainable building and farming last year, called Live Edge Growers. He’s been a farmer for twenty plus years supplying produce to Whole Foods and the like. He’s also a gifted guitarist, and one of my mentors. Big Ears has turned into our weekend, a time for us to melt in the fabric of collective consciousness, to fit into the pretty showing of experimentations, mutated by the creative purveyors at A/C Entertainment. Our discussions cover almost everything, and we own the city free, somewhat able to allow our weird animal spirits a platform to be themselves.  This time we added a bit more “spark” to our mix, and my good friend Adam came from Chicago. Adam’s a city rat, he works in marketing and has the type of gig where he can play ping-pong before he opens his laptop. It’s the kind of spot they have cocktail parties at the end of the day. A white “B-boy” clowning, whose record collection takes up more space in his crib than the furniture. He also produces music, and has been a DJ for close to twenty years.  We met in the music world, throwing parties and deejaying together, real underground shit. This was my mixtape for the weekend, my extreme sides of each half of myself. The quiet meets the loud, the whimsical meets the straight tough lines, with a chameleon in the middle ready and willing to change.

 

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Adam shopping at Wild Honey Records During The Festival Weekend

The lineup this year was curated so well, and thoughtful.  It was a steady climb up into musical BPM, starting early, and ending late. We caught Sir Richard Bishop on Saturday at the newest venue. “The St Johns Episcopal Church has been an anchor congregation of downtown Knoxville since 1826.”  The quiet setting, and history behind the performer and the venue couldn’t have been suited better. I wasn’t familiar with him, but Lee had to see him, since he was someone he looked up to as a player. We caught about half the set. It was pleasant and odd being in the old church. Another great addition to our group this year was Lee’s daughter Iris. It was her first time at the festival, and she’d had a smile most of the day. Perplexing her for well after the show, was the Jeff Tweedy meets Chika Morachi whose soaring noise improvisations left the young girl feeling the buzz and visceral vibrations for much of the day. To see the younger youth feel so much from one show, is certainly a highlight for me. I’m sure she will be back, I hope she will.

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Iris and Lee Standing Next To Sir Richard Bishop @ The Mill and Mine

Saturday at this point was still very much low-key. I was still stung and beaten with Joy from seeing Tortoise the night before, at the Mill And Mine. John McEntire might be my favorite drummer. His career, especially in the Chicago Indie outfit The Sea and Cake, is responsible for much of my musical taste and inspiration in the Arts. They cranked up the festival to a place I yearned for the rest of the weekend. It was never matched but others certainly touched the line in my head. They just flattened things out to normalcy so we could boogie for a while. Likewise, was the booty house set on Saturday Night. I had to miss a few things to dance but seeing  Jace Clayton, PKA DJ Rupture was worth it. His track selection and mixing were good, but I was more curious about him and his philosophy in music. He just released his second book called Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture. He appears to have the kind of career in interdisciplinary Art that I seek as well, or at least I admire him for it. The mix of his contribution across the spectrum in creative works made him the most interesting to me. I’m looking forward to reading his book, and I wish I would have caught his lecture at Big Ears. His Deejay set was a dance party, pure and fun as hell.

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DJ Rupture @ The Standard, Knoxville TN

There are so many notable mentions from the weekend. I could talk about how I use to think Wilco was just a popular college rock band I was never going to like. But after seeing them live, I’m blown away, and embarrassed I ever doubted their brilliance. I’m a fan now, and I’d love to see them again. They might have put on the best performance of the weekend. I could also talk about how I gave Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab) directions to the Standard, not knowing it was her. Then after being told it was, I saw her several times hanging out around the city and festival, she stood out like a regal force swaying gracefully amongst the attendees and patrons. In this same city I could go on and on about the moment we walked from the Standard to the Mill and Mine with a group surrounding us, as we beat boxed, sang, and flowed to the movements and sounds of the evening.  We felt alive, we owned our night, and it felt like the prelude to an auspicious year. I could talk about how this was the second year our Dad came for a night, and how awesome he is to participate in this festival. He loves his kids, and his family, so willing to get his ears laced up with sounds he will most likely never hear again, and maybe wouldn’t want to. But there he was, until the late night, a champion for his kids beliefs, and proud of us for being ourselves. He is now part of the tradition, he is now part of the collective creative consciousness we profess our devotion to, as the willing kinds.

Big Ears has so many great things going for it. The weekend is truly a unique experience into the creative mantras of the performers and the attendees. The earth, and build of Knoxville feels special, the city doesn’t turn off for Big Ears, it turns on, and turns up. If you ever get a chance, you should come through our “Scruffy City” and see the “wildlife,” feel the history, and be accepted from whatever part of the world you come from. The arms are open, the feels are real. See you next year!

Nomadic Firs Update

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The new album for Nomadic Firs is swimming along nicely. At this point there’s no release date but I hope its ready by spring, out by late summer, or early fall. Mainly, its just two years of exploring sounds, and experimenting with different ideas and approaches. The hope is “texture” wins out as the main theme throughout the 9 or 10 track album. In the middle of that, I’m narrowing down the amount of things I do so I can transition this project into some level of performance. Most likely me hitting buttons and wiggling my head weirdly. Continually, I come to the same revelations about music. Its just a place I like to go in my head, almost an absolute personal thing. But I don’t want to let this flowering solitude squander away in some kind of reclusive obscurity. So, I’m gonna try and be out there.

I’m also recording a second album under a different name with my close friend Adam Stolz, in Chicago. We’ve been flirting with the name Hot Butter Lunch, and the album is 8-10 tracks deep already. Its a revamp of our former band Case Point, and honestly the new sound we have going is pretty damn special in my view. Kind of a “psych hop” if you will. No word on when we’ll stop recording and release, but within the next year for sure.

The newest song thats coming out is a remix I just wrapped under Nomadic Firs, for Matt Honkonen. Its for his first single “Sea of Clouds” off of his new album Take Me Home. Hopefully we drop that puppy quite soon. After a more formal release for his new gem of an album. I’m actually doing a Q/A with him on Acres, so thats coming as well. Here’s the official video for his new single, FYI I’m the taller dude in the video. Very fun day! His new album is really good, I encourage you to explore his history indeed.

For now, thats about it. Plenty going on in life, and in music. Big Ears 2016 just announced, so thats always a big moment for us Knoxville peeps. Lee’s coming back!

all the best,

Ryan

Big Ears 2015: The Boom Bangs and Whispers

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If you walked into the Bijou Theatre to see Tanya Tagaq, an inuk throat singer from Canada, you would have been absolutely still with a massive amount of weird sexual endorphins hitting overdrive. That performance was hugely erotic, then it went into this quasi-exorcism, which rattled some cages. I’ve never felt more aroused and terrified at the same time. But utterly in awe of her, and the amount of courage to become anthropomorphic in front of an audience. Yes, the more conservative festival goers left with looks on their face as if they were punched in the gut, licked, then pissed on. But damn, I fell in love with pure truth all over again.

Which brings me to the closed-door analogy. It’s open to all of you, but be ready for it once you enter. There’s absolutely no going back. You will be transformed, then fixated on how bullshit everything you’ve done leading up to that point actually is. But not in a negative way, in an uplifting, ‘hey I might try to fly home” kind of thing. And it’s not just about music, or being creative. I think I’m a better person, a better brother, a better husband from being in those rooms. Breathing in the same shitty smoke machine air with all those talented people. You feel like you belong somewhere. You can’t go back after that, it cannot be undone. You’ve seen behind the curtain and can’t believe how free you felt. Until you have to go home and settle into your robotic pod of modern-day civilization, thats life I guess. I feel as if the attendees, the performers, anyone in the proximity of this beautiful experience, created a massive ground ether that launched when SWANS wrapped the last set on Sunday. It’s still moving up there. The traveling sound collage that was our weekend together in Knoxville, Tennessee. This small, vibrant, and wonderfully “Scruffy City” has something going on.

Back in 2009, AC Entertainment, most known for Bonnaroo music festival, launched Big Ears. From the jump it was apparent that “ears” wouldn’t be your typical festival experience but more in line with acts that focused on the avant nature in creating. I recall the first one in fact, Dan Deacon directed the crowd to form a tunnel, while one of his sonic jams looped in the back ground. Or the infamous moment when Matmos had to change venues because their videos would offend the businesses religious bends. Sadly that place is still in the venue rotation, but that’s only “sad” for the horrible sound the room still has to this day. Ask Steve Gunn if he liked it…his performance was my top pick for the weekend, but the venue made it quite average. His album Way Out Weather is something to be heralded, so make sure he has the right sound to deliver it. He was a pro though, so it was fine.

After missing 2010, I was thrilled to see it come back from the dead in 2014. And last years success further instilled the yearning people have to be in a room with something unique. A call inherent in our DNA from the primitive mind. It only feels satiated after the kind of experimental ritual this weekend booms and bangs. Then there’s the whispers, the almost silent pauses in performances that are as loud as Ben Frost’s low-end at the Bijou. A friend of a friend who heard his sound check said “The bass is so loud I felt nauseous”. An example of the whole ethos behind Big Ears. Make you feel so uncomfortable that eventually you transcend into feeling completely at ease within yourself. Poetic indeed, but its truth in these moments couldn’t be more real. There’s nothing like it, anywhere. A bartender friend of mine, who works downtown, said “It’s like our Sundance”. That quote was on the list of my favorite things from the festival. He mixed drinks watching the performers and attendees stroll through downtown, back and forth between venues. How sweet it is…

This year was just as great as the last, but had a special quality for me personally. My Brother made the trip from the North. A human with his own special sense of living, and special talents with a guitar, very special. I’d been telling him for a year he had to come. It was a weekend built for him, people who can carry your interest with a word, or a recommendation into something unknown. So, the fact I was able to see and be present in all these amazing performances, with an “individual” giving his own meaning to the word, it was profound. We were essentially having these breakthroughs from one show to the next. It sounds silly to you maybe, but it gets to the core of what this festival is doing for music, whats it’s doing for us. I leave every time with the courage to be who I’m suppose to be. So this review is much more about my evolution, or better, my devolution into something else. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs suggest as much when she talked about ego, and how big all of ours can be. Her performance, absolutely fun, was easily a stand out for us. It came perfectly in the apex of the weekend. An obvious stroke of the brilliant brush for AC Entertainment.

Big Ears 2015 obviously evokes a great deal about life for me. I’m sure it feels that way for a lot the people smart enough to pay the money to be there. It’s simply worth it. The great performances were non-stop. It was truth in Art forms. The Hive for example, Tyondai Braxton’s creation of performance and functional installation was brilliant. A genre exploration in electronic music, with live percussion by other musicians, all sitting atop these lit up pods. Something you’re not going to see that often.

Other great moments, Little Annie Sunday night. She was vivacious and poetic, gorgeously charming in the way she swayed around, without a care in the world. So damn inspiring. Likewise for Silver Apples, a pioneer in the minimal electronic sound. Simeon Coxe couldn’t have been happier up there. It was contagious, the whole weekend. And Terry Riley and son hypnotized me early sunday as I sat with family and friends at the KMA. Gosh darn memorable, in every way.

The end was just as potent as the beginning. And I chose to be decompressed by Max Richter with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performing the score for the HBO series The Leftovers. Nothing short of breath-taking. I was so tired and wiped out from walking and listening all weekend. I more or less fell into my chair, slouched down as low as I could, and just let it all settle in. I let that performance carry me home, mentally, like a serene boat ride down a mystic river.

I asked local musician Matt Honkonen, a very close friend, for his best moment at Big Ears, he said “Tito’s and burgers after the weekend, slowly unpacking the layers of three full days. The inspiration that comes to you slowly after a weekend of music is hard to put into words”. I was able to partake in that, and believe me when I say we ate and drank like kings. Its was similar to eating after a long hike in the Smokies. We made the bar rain down a gluttonous storm. The Bistro is the best place to feel you’re somewhere special, or at least different. How fitting that while we were soaking up everything we’d just experienced, Little Annie was just finishing her Hot Totti, KSO was down the bar eating, and chatting with others. A couple well-respected locals were doing the same. It feels special to live in Knoxville, I’m thrilled about it. Can’t wait for next year!