Unconscious Collective are the trio of guitarist Gregg Prickett, bassist Aaron González and drummer Stefan González. The latter two are brothers, and the sons of trumpeter Dennis González, with whom they perform in his band Yells At Eels. They’re also members of guitarist Luis Lopes‘ Humanization 4tet, along with saxophonist Rodrigo Amado. They’ve just released their second album, Pleistocene Moon, via the Tofu Carnage label.
The Collective’s music blends jazz and rock in ways that owe more to late-period Black Flag than, say, Mahavishnu Orchestra or modern chops-happy outfits. Prickett’s guitar tone is a nasty, curled-lip snarl that sometimes erupts into circuit-frying noise in the vein of Neil Young or Keiji Haino; Stefan González is a machine-gun drummer, except when he’s skittering around his kit like Rashied Ali in 1967; and Aaron González does much more with his bass than bolster the middle ground between the two men—he drags the music where he wants it to go, with a combination of riffing and exploration that recalls Geezer Butler. On their self-titled debut album, Stefan also plays vibraphone on several tracks, adding extra melody and at times coercing the music toward an unexpected swing.
Pleistocene Moon is more disciplined, and more ritualistic, than the debut. (The shamanic aspect is important; note the face and body paint, a feature of their practice since the beginning.) The disc-opening title track begins with sounds like coyotes howling, and men throat-singing and shaking gourds; when the music starts, it’s slow and psychedelic, with plenty of dubby echo and reverb giving it a spacy atmosphere. On “Requiem for Biodiversity,” “Methane Rising,” and “The Transformation of Matter,” there’s saxophone—sometimes mournful, sometimes skronky and fierce. A brilliant, intense statement from a group doing something with roots in multiple traditions (punk, metal, free jazz, and music-as-ritual) that finds a way to make it all new, Pleistocene Moon ought to thrill adventurous listeners, no matter what door they enter through.
We’ve got an exclusive premiere of the band’s video for “Kotsoteka”—watch it below:
We sent the bandmembers some questions via email; here are their answers.
Gregg, your guitar tone is extremely nasty, buzzing and electric—there’s a lot of blues/metal in there, too. Can you tell me about your sound and gear, and how your style developed?
Gregg Prickett: My gear choices came about in some part due to my style development. I started out playing on a classical guitar and my first studies were of classical tradition. The guitar I use is sort of a Frankenstein affair, using the widest six-string neck I could find (1 7/8″ at the nut ) and a flat fretboard with large frets, somewhat like a classical guitar. The amps I eventually came to settle on using in my setup are Matchless and Sonic Machine Factory tube amps. My effects board is pretty small and is limited to basic stuff like distortion, delay, an octave box, and a univibe and fundamentally it has not changed in years. You can create so much using the multi-digit things on the ends of your arms that you can’t get any other way. I like effects to augment what I play, but it’s my hands that do the digging. As far as how my style developed, it’s a collision of majestic swaths of determination and tragic lapses of discipline, vast skies of clarity and oceans of chaos. In short, everything I have seen and hoped and dreamed and compulsion or perhaps delusion that there is meaning in the maelstrom. Same as everybody else, I suppose.
The group’s compositions are a really cool blend of improvisation and hard rock; they swing sometimes, and there are plenty of atmospheric passages, but there’s a lot of riffing there. How much is structured beforehand and how much is improvised?
Stefan González: Structurally speaking, we can work on our songs anywhere between a few months to a year and a half before we’re ready to present them live. Some concrete song ideas come from improvising freely, whereas others are ideas we come up with individually and let the collective take the ideas up further and further. That being said, even some of our most thoroughly composed songs have a great deal of improvisation and change subtly each time we play them.
Gregg Prickett: Some pieces are thoroughly composed and some are pure improvisation and some are varying percentages of these two methods. Some might begin with nothing but a title, a decision to begin with two duets, or a simple agreement to start hard or let things breathe and build.
Aaron González: Of the two albums, Pleistocene Moon has compositions that are more involved, through-composed, and agonized-over, particularly the piece “Kotsoteka.” When we improvise in the compositions, it’s usually a structured improv with certain motifs worked in. These motifs may be something as specific as a chord progression or a rhythm, or it could be a matter of texture, dynamics, interplay, etc. that we choose to absorb as appropriate to the composition. Though, at times, one person might improvise while the others accompany him with a composed part, we don’t often consider a part to be a “solo” in the traditional sense. We prefer to think of each part in terms of the whole ensemble.
On your debut album, there was vibraphone as well as drums. On the new album, there’s saxophone. Who’s playing the saxophone, and will he or she be appearing live with you?
SG: The saxophonist on our new record is Mike Forbes, who we all have a deep musical history with, going back to the early 2000s. He also plays in the amazing free jazz power trio Tiger Hatchery. Though Forbes recently moved to San Francisco, if he ever comes back to Texas to visit, or if we end up in San Francisco on tour, we will definitely try to collaborate with him once again. I would also like to work in some vibraphone and other various percussion into our music once again in the not-so-distant future.
Your music is not fully recorded live in the studio. There’s a lot of production work, particularly on the new album. Why is it important to your music that it be more polished and produced than a jazz/improv disc, that might be just captured live?
SG: I do not think of our studio recordings as polished. Although they are very good quality recordings there is still a great deal of grit and rawness. We did work in some overdubs on this one, though we still make it our goal to be able to emulate what you hear on the record in real time when we play live.
GP: All of the tracks on Pleistocene Moon were recorded live except the opening and closing tracks, yet even those pieces have been performed live with auxiliary performers. We were really interested in having the opportunity to compose in the studio using layers and multiple tracks, which marks our first foray into using the studio as an instrument. Having said that, I can say that I see this record as less polished and more raw and visceral, unless you mean the amazing engineering, mixing and mastering that we were fortunate to have!
AG: Even some of the more “rock”-sounding tracks like “Tribe Apini” are done live, and in one take, much the way a more traditional jazz group might. Since composing the multi-layered “Pleistocene Moon” in the studio, we have formed an ensemble of vocalists and strings to perform with us live. There has even been talk of using them more extensively for other pieces, either as individual players or a full ensemble. We enjoy the immediacy and energy of a live performance captured on tape, but the use of the studio has also opened up new possibilities which I, for one, would like to explore further.
Aaron & Stefan, you two have worked as a rhythm team behind your dad, as well as in Luis Lopes’ Humanization 4tet; how does what you do in those groups compare or contrast with what you’re doing here?
SG: What we do with Humanization 4tet and with our father in Yells at Eels is not totally exclusive of what we do in Unconscious Collective, but many other emotions play out within each of those musical settings. Yells at Eels is the longest-running band out of all three aforementioned acts and that is largely where I developed my “jazz chops” and the ability to improvise over long periods of time. Humanization 4tet takes from those avant-garde jazz roots yet is largely a collaboration between the two of us as the rhythm section and Portuguese musicians Luis Lopes and Rodrigo Amado who bring their own musical and cultural dialogue to the table. Unconscious Collective, in a musical sense, is a drastic combination of my influence from my punk roots to my jazz roots to more unknown depths. Although drastically extroverted within our live performances, we still dig into the more cerebral and introverted aspects of our psyche and exploit it to the utmost extent.
AG: Stefan and I have been playing together since we were kids and have developed a musical dialogue/rapport that extends over every situation we play in. As such, there are musical parallels within our performances even in very stylistically different situations. Yells at Eels mostly stays in the “free jazz” realm of things, though there is a huge realm of possibility within that. Humanization 4tet is also very free jazz, but with a darker, edgier aspect apparent in both our wilder, noisier pieces and our more sparse, introspective parts. Unconscious Collective is probably the most stylistically open, ranging from jazz to rock with a variety of dynamics and instrumental set-ups, plus a larger agenda of experimentation. After all this time of playing with so many different people, I have realized I cannot be separated from the vast history and musical context that I’ve been a part of for so long.
The new album has a more ritualistic feel than the first one. How does that aspect of your sound tie in with the paint you wear, and the rest of your collective philosophy and presentation?
GP: In a sense, it is not a matter of aspects or pieces or various influences, but rather it is all part of one thing for me. The paint is the ritual; the music is the ritual and the philosophy. This is who I am. We are individuals, but I think a lot of our success as a collective comes from the fact that our various ideas and personalities fit so well together.
AG: The disembodied voices, drones, certain percussive effects, etc. might be some things that conjure images of ritualism. The theatrical, shamanic, and transformative aspect of the band has been present in some form since our inception, whether it be the visual body painting, the thematic social and spiritual aspect, or sonic exploration. The nexus between our musical compositions and extensive improvisation arose as an attempt to deal with altered states of consciousness that we were trying to invoke or express. The visual/bodily aspect started off as a way to express this. It is ultimately an attempt to move beyond the limits of our ontology. It is a way of communing and communicating with our audience in ways that transcend and transform our humanity to something prophetic and liberating.