Chuck Johnson is an Oakland-based composer with a very diverse musical background and discography. Hailing from the early 90s college rock Mecca of Chapel Hill, NC where he played in Spatula, formed Idyll Swords with Polvo’s Dave Brylawski, worked with Superchunk, and released records on Merge, Johnson moved to the Bay Area to pursue an MFA from the esteemed Mills College in Electronic Music. Before graduating in 2009, he studied under Pauline Oliveros and James Fei, and learned how to build his own hardware systems of analog circuitry to explore minimalist and non-linear sounds using “just intonation”, or tuning based on ratios rather than intervals.
This may seem overly academic to some, but Johnson’s punk background and the authenticity to his music — he makes all of his analog equipment himself — grounds his work in a way that sounds more organic than, say, compositions created by computer software. Songs from his 2010 LP Liber Novus (as his electro alias Pykrete) bounce back and forth between beat-driven and arrhythmic, yet never sounds too slick or artificial. (Johnson has not abandoned the guitar, however. He also releases folk records — as human non-alias Chuck Johnson — and was featured on the second Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation.)
Johnson will be performing live this Sunday at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival with former mentor James Fei and Negativewobblyland, where he will use a steel guitar as a control source for his electronics. I chatted with him about his music and the beautiful chaos of performing experimental electronic music live.
TBB: As an active musician for decades now, how has your past influenced or informed your present style?
CJ: I grew up in North Carolina listening to my step-grandfather fingerpick country songs at family gatherings and listening to the Grand Ole Opry. But I probably also spent an equal amount of time with my head next to a vacuum cleaner, blissed out on the drone, or lying in front of my parents’ old console stereo system with the radio tuned between stations. The very first time I picked up a friend’s electric guitar, without knowing how to play a note, I made it feed back and the mystery and awe in that experience has never diminished. I think all these early experiences are still well represented in what I do now.
These days I think of all of my music as being connected to both minimalism and folk. The connection to minimalism is an acute attention to sound, timbre, and texture and with less concern for formal complexity and linear structure. That is, what you experience when you are “inside the sound” at any given moment — that is the composition.
The connection to folk is that I am largely self-taught, that I learn from listening, and that I relate more to the way music is experienced, shared, and transmitted in a certain kind of social sphere. Also, I prefer to make and listen to music that has a quality of rawness.
TBB: At what point did you decide to step away from the punk and indie rock scenes and explore experimental and electronic music?
CJ: The punk/indie rock culture in which I came of age informed me with an ethos of self-reliance and community that is still very much a part of me. And I recognized it in the cultures that form around improvised and experimental music as well, which is why I gravitated towards them. So it was a gradual, organic process, and there was (and still is) a lot of overlap.
TBB: When you sit down to compose do you have an end result in mind or is it more or less improvised?
CJ: With electronics the composition process is less goal-oriented. I try to let the sound guide me, or I set up a system and try to get out of its way to a certain degree. In some cases I start with a basic idea, process or sound source. For example, with my SFEMF piece I started with the idea of drawing out and amplifying an acoustic artifact that usually isn’t audible, and then using that revealed “ghost” signal to control a modular analog synthesizer.
TBB: So your live performance is pretty much mapped out?
CJ: I usually map out a series of events that I want to happen, and I have an idea of how a performance will start and end. But a lot of it is improvised — both on my part and on the part of the system. With live electronics – especially with analog circuits — there is always an element of surprise, and part of the performance is responding to what is working and what isn’t.
TBB: Since graduating from Mills, has your approach to making music changed at all?
CJ: My time at Mills provided a rare opportunity to delve deeply into making music with very few distractions for two years! And that time and the resources at Mills enabled me to work extensively with just intonation, or the practice of tuning instruments to more acoustically pure pitches. I also worked a lot on improving my electronics system to make it much more flexible and performative. So those are two big tools that I continue to work with. I would say that I came out of Mills with a more focused, concentrated approach to making music. And while it may seem like the things I do are rather disparate I now see them as being very closely related than I did before doing graduate work.
TBB: You currently create compositions for both acoustic guitar and electronic instruments. Do you have a preference and does one type lend itself more to live performance?
CJ:I prefer setting up for a show with just an acoustic guitar! But seriously, I don’t have a preference and I get a lot out of both pursuits.
I think they are both best experienced live. But electronic music performed in real time over a powerful sound system — there really is nothing like it! Sounds can literally hang in the air, gather in the corners and crevices of the performance space, activate the resonance of the building, and even push your body around. It is nearly impossible to replicate that listening experience in any other way. Playing the same performance back over a home stereo doesn’t come close — let alone from a computer or over headphones — and is a much more passive experience by comparison.