John Zorn‘s latest group, Simulacrum, has come out of the gate fast and hard. They’ve released three albums so far this year—a self-titled debut in March, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons in August, and Inferno in September. November will be the group’s busiest month to date; they’re recording their fourth album, The Painted Bird, and made their live debut on Halloween in Brooklyn, with a short tour, including a show at the Village Vanguard, to follow, after which they’ll record their fifth album before year’s end.
The core ensemble consists of John Medeski on organ, Matt Hollenberg of the art-metal band Cleric on guitar, and Kenny Grohowski of avant-garde black metal band Imperial Triumphant on drums. The music is essentially a high-powered organ trio not unlike Tony Williams Lifetime, but much thrashier and more aggressive, with frequent prog-rock overtones and highly complex melodic structures. Zorn writes and conducts all the music, as he did with Moonchild, a trio of vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Joey Baron that Medeski joined for their last two (of seven) albums. On The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons, Dunn and guitarist Marc Ribot (who also played with Moonchild) were added to the ensemble, and The Painted Bird will feature Kenny Wollesen on vibes.
Simulacrum‘s upcoming tour dates are as follows:
November 8, the Village Vanguard, New York
November 11, Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia
November 13, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
November 14, Firehouse 12, New Haven
All three members of Simulacrum answered questions via email.
How did you come to enter John Zorn’s pool of collaborators? Were you introduced by someone else, or was he aware of your work with another band?
Kenny Grohowski: I was introduced to Zorn through Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz. Around late 2011, I was performing at the Sephardic Music Festival in NYC with vocalist Nuriya Almaya. Our band had just happened to be completing soundcheck at Le Poisson Rouge and I was making my way out the door when I bumped into Shanir. The last time we had seen each other prior to this show was back in 2004 where a mutual friend of ours, trumpeter Jonathan Powell, gave Shanir my number to play a session with him and guitarist Eyal Maoz, working on doing avant-garde/grindcore renditions of traditional Jewish songs. So as we looked at each other, we eventually realized that we both recognized each other and slowly put the narrative back together. Unbeknownst to me, Shanir was in the process of putting together a band to lead his very own Masada: Book of Angels release and the original drummer he had in mind, Hamid Drake, was not available. Eventually Shanir would find my number—it hasn’t changed in quite a while—and we started talking about the possibility of me playing with what would be called Abraxas. I said that I was completely down, so then Shanir started coming out to various shows that I played in NYC, videotaping them so that Zorn could watch me play—he was traveling at the time—and give Shanir the veritable “yea” or “nay.” Eventually, Zorn gave Shanir the green light and from there we came up with grooves and an approach that would later become what Abraxas now is.
My first time physically meeting and communicating with Zorn wouldn’t be until the summer of 2012, when Abraxas, Aleph Trio, and Secret Chiefs 3 performed at the 2012 Jazz In Marciac Festival. That particular day was an emotional nightmare. I was nervous—I’m actually a very introverted, rather shy person and tend to make terrible first impressions, mumble, or seem awkward—because traffic on the highway on the way to the airport was horrendously bad, and upon arriving at JFK, the airport was in complete disarray. Not to dwell on this memory, it was mostly spent with frantic phone calls from Shanir about cutting the line and trying to get help, being denied help from the mostly obnoxious security and airport personnel, and even some other flyers allowing me to cut in front of them in the line. I was shaking with worry, instead of just being calm and in the moment, because the whole time I was thinking, “This is my introduction to Zorn and everyone else going to France for this gig. I am a asshole!” Regardless of this, Zorn was more relieved that I made it through and we got along incredibly well. It would end up being Abraxas‘ second show that we ever played, outside of recording the album, and it would be my physical introduction to Secret Chiefs 3, a band that I had been checking out and was aware of for some time through the Mr. Bungle/John Zorn connection, so on top of meeting Zorn and everyone in SC3, I couldn’t get over the nerves of performing in front of these people, thinking, “They’re going to hate my way of playing. This is going to be a slaughterhouse.” But to my surprise, everyone there was rather impressed by the band and my playing in particular, and shortly afterwards, Timba [Harris] and Trey [Spruance] and Ches [Smith] would eventually ask if I would be willing to sign on as the touring drummer for Secret Chiefs 3—to which I quickly said “yes”—and to our eventual relationship that I still share with the band today. You could say that reconnecting with Shanir, after almost 10 years of zero communication, was the doorway that lead me to working with both Zorn and Trey Spruance, and all of the wonderful and life-changing experiences that have ensued since. At this point, Shanir’s Abraxas band has recorded two albums, with a third in the works, and the new trio Simulacrum have now recorded three albums, with one coming up this November followed by a fifth, a ballet if you will, to be recorded sometime in December. There is no point in my personal history that I could go back to and say, “Dude, in the future this is the kind of music you’re going to make and the kind of musical family you would connect to.” It’s all been a wonderful ride.
Matt Hollenberg: Zorn was first made aware of me through Cleric, who had reached him through Trevor Dunn. Back in 2009, Trevor’s band Mad Love had played Kung Fu Necktie in Philly and had needed a bass cab at the time. The promoter of the show and I were friendly, so I ended up lending Trevor the Cleric bass cab and checking out the show. At the end of the show I told him I was a huge fan and handed him a CD-R of one of the songs off of Regressions that Cleric was finishing up at the time. I didn’t really anticipate anything happening from that initially, but a few weeks went by and Cleric got a message from Trevor that we were “crazy bastards,” and he took it upon himself to show Zorn, who ending up loving it. It was pretty surreal that month for everyone in the band to be getting compliments from a lot of our biggest musical influences. A week later Trey Spruance heard the same demo Zorn had been given, which ended up with Cleric being on Web Of Mimicry Records a month later. The record eventually came out in April of 2010, and we mailed a copy to Zorn with a message of gratitude. A few years went by without contact between the band or Zorn, when finally, in 2013, Larry, the drummer of Cleric, attended a Moonchild show in NYC and hung around after the show to try and meet Zorn face to face. As soon as Zorn heard Larry was in Cleric he stopped to talk to him for a long while about the band, as he was very excited to meet him. We were all thrilled to discover that he was way into Cleric‘s music and our record, not just a casual listener. In November of 2013 we decided to do a national DIY-style tour for the first time. The first night of the tour we played Grand Victory with Car Bomb and Larry invited Zorn out to watch our show. He ended up coming out and we all had some epic conversations about music, art and composition. He loved the show and invited us to do the Masada Book of Beriah Town Hall event in March 2014. He really dug the arrangement Cleric did for his Masada Book of Beriah tune “Imma,” so he asked us to record a full record of Masada tunes. It was shortly after this in June that he first emailed me and mentioned the idea of a “heavy metal organ trio” with Medeski. Of course I said yes. He had emailed me before I was really exposed to how fast he composes his records. I assumed since he mentioned the idea was “in development” that it might not be for a few months that I would hear about it again. Not even two weeks had gone by from the initial email and he had written the entire first record, and sent the trio the score. I couldn’t believe it!
John Medeski: I’ve known Zorn since I moved to New York in 1989, but started working with him more frequently a few years ago. It’s an amazing community of musicians.
Simulacrum, like many of Zorn’s projects, started as one recording. It went so well that it inspired him to write more for the band. I think that, most likely, my participation on the last two Moonchild CDs had something to do with the inspiration for this new group, in the sense that one thing leads to another, but it’s probably not that simple. You’d have to ask Zorn that question.
All the music on the Simulacrum albums is composed and conducted by Zorn—what does the conduction entail? Is everyone recording in one room, with him in the middle?
JM: We all sit in the tracking room with Zorn and he conducts. This is how all the recordings I’ve done have been made. Certain instruments and amplifiers are isolated.
KG: Usually everyone is tracking together in the main room, with the amps/cabs and speakers all in isolation rooms. We rely heavily on headphone mixes since the drums can be…punishing. Zorn generally sits in the room and, depending on the nature of the piece, is either actively cueing sections, or simply sitting and following along in the score and just simply being present for the process. Songs like “Marmarath” or “Paradigm Shift” tend to not be conducted, since those songs tend to take more of the traditional rock route in song form, or in some cases like a jazz head where there is some sort of song form, followed by some solos, then a head out. Pieces like “The Divine Comedy” or “Inferno” tend to have a lot more conduction taking place, especially when it comes to the Event sections and other similar parts, where everything is about interpretation and interruption, as opposed to comping. Due to equipment setup, Zorn usually sets up off to my right, Matt’s left, and Medeski’s front, so in a sense the layout is more of a rhombus.
MH: Yes, the four of us are all in a room together with him conducting. He will cue dynamics, the improv sections (what he calls Event sections), and how long to hold certain notes. He gives immediate feedback if you are doing something he doesn’t like. He gives lots of pointers on guitar tone and drum beats as well as organ timbre, so he is very much involved down to the minutiae of the pieces. It’s a super efficient process and seeing his system of making albums from conception to execution was very inspiring.
How are the pieces scored—conventionally, or with graphic notation, or some combination of the two?
KG: All the music that we read in Simulacrum is standard notation, usually written with a grand staff and, wherever is necessary, written instructions. Usually these are for me since the drum parts are all created by the drummer, but under direction by Zorn, in essence “play rock,” “fast jazz,” “heavy,” “haunting,” et cetera. Everything is handwritten, so it did take me some time to get used to his calligraphy, but I find that it has a very interesting effect on how one would interpret the scores he sends out.
MH: Almost all the pieces are scored with standard notation, with some unconventional marks for improv ideas and event sections. He will, for example, if there is a guitar solo, describe the vibe and the way he wants you to approach it.
John, what are the “event sections”?
JM: “Event section” describes a particular approach to improvising where the players move quickly through completely different ideas, techniques, textures, tempos, et cetera.
How much rehearsal time have you had for each album? How far in advance do you get the music?
KG: It has varied, and almost completely erring on the side of “nowhere near enough.” When it came time to record Simulacrum, Matt and I had gotten together for about three or four rehearsals at my studio in Astoria, Queens. These sessions would usually go for about four to six hours, but with plenty of time to break and pay for parking meters, get coffee, et cetera. Matt did some preliminary pre-production work up front with the scores, and I would spend time with his versions, writing the drum parts based off of how the score was being interpreted and what I was hearing in my head, then essentially we would “jam out” on the music. Medeski would usually just meet us at the studio the day of the recording and crush it without a rehearsal. After that, when we did The True Discovery of Witches and Demons, Matt and I got together only once or twice, just the two of us, but this time with Ribot and Dunn and Medeski all slaying it on the spot. It was fun watching Ribot and Matt interact together, especially with Zorn busting Marc’s chops. Lots of laughing at that recording session.
MH: So for the first one, Kenny and I met two or three times, just the two of us, and then did a run-through at the Stone once with Medeski and Zorn. For True Discoveries we didn’t rehearse at all, just met at the studio. The same deal for Inferno I believe.
JM: Everyone does whatever they need to prepare the music ahead of time and we work everything out in the studio.
The group that seems closest to Simulacrum in spirit, Moonchild, made seven albums. Simulacrum has made three so far—has there been any discussion of how long this project will last?
KG: I would say that’s definitely a fair assessment in comparing Moonchild with Simulacrum. If we make it to making seven albums I will be rendered ecstatic! As it is, we have three now and are currently learning and preparing two more. I think if we keep proving ourselves as a band and as musicians, I think that it’s fair to say that Zorn will keep the band going. The last couple of weeks the trio has had more time to hang out together, “break bread,” and just be ourselves without the pressure of playing a show or recording an album, and the chemistry is rather potent. Two different generations of musicians, but there are a lot of similarities in our respective outlooks and personal philosophies, and it’s helping that everyone has a background in having and leading bands, not just being mercenary-type musicians solely, so the need and sensibilities that come with being in a band with someone are growing in a beautiful and organic way. It’s getting to the point where we even make mistakes together and bail each other out when trying to tackle this incredible detailed and nuanced music. Public reaction to the band seems to be favorable, even if some fear we may be too loud. Personally, I’m quite willing and happy to keep this band alive for as long as possible.
MH: Zorn has mentioned that he wants to do seven records. He has already written the fourth and fifth and so it seems likely that it will last for seven.
JM: I guess we’ll see. I hope we keep it going.