Breaking the Pattern
The sonic oeuvre of the Broun Fellinis (David Boyce, tenor and soprano saxes, EFX; Kevin Carnes, acoustic and electronic drums; Kirk Peterson, electric bass, EFX) is informed by the legacy of Black American music. From field hollers to delta blues to jazz to funk to hip-hop to the experimental, the Broun Fellinis see themselves as part of an ongoing aesthetic, a cosmic continuum, which the Art Ensemble of Chicago called “Great Black Music from the Ancient to the Future.” The trio has performed internationally, from the San Sebastian International Jazz Festival in Spain, to the opening of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Their performances include a tour with Ben Harper and co-bills with Gil Scott-Heron, Meshell Ndegeocello, the Roots, Erykah Badu, Bad Brains, George Clinton, Rafael Saadiq, Mos Def, The Last Poets, Living Colour, Zakir Hussain, Bernie Worrell, Jimmy Smith, Galactic, Medeski, Martin, Wood, Ravi Coltrane, and many more.
On June 25th, the Broun Fellinis will celebrate their 25th anniversary at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (and a steady release of live recordings can be found here). Recently, they let Open Space editor-in-chief Claudia La Rocco sit in on a rehearsal. Here’s what followed:
CLAUDIA LA ROCCO: Looking back over twenty-five years of music, what throughlines do you see, and what shifts?
KEVIN CARNES: A sort of exploded energy; whether we’re playing a song we’ve played thousands of times or making something up, we will always try to explode them, even as we’re trying to figure out, okay, what happens next?
DAVID BOYCE: We’ve been improvising a lot — crazy electroacoustic sound designs and stuff — so the song side of us hasn’t been emphasized recently. In doing this twenty-fifth year retrospective, it’s nice to revisit some of these melodies and ballads from a time when we were building something. There’s a lot of hope in that music — a lot of optimism and youthful, we’re-going-to-do-this kind of thing.
LA ROCCO: Is there dissonance between the way you see yourselves and the way you’re seen by others?
BOYCE: Well, we always got labeled acid jazz back in the day. This British DJ, Gilles Peterson, coined the phrase acid jazz to give these compilations he was putting out a brand, and we got stuck with that moniker. But we’d always tell people acid jazz is jazz musicians playing on acid, and we don’t necessarily play on acid all the time.
KIRK PETERSON: Yeah, we’ve never done acid. Sorry. [laughter] And the instrumentation — we were not necessarily playing just jazz; we were playing dub music and Afrobeat and punk rock and house music.
BOYCE: As well as hardcore free jazz. And trying to swing.
CARNES: This is how it is with a lot of labels that come from someone other than the musicians themselves, who are just making something different… so — now we’ve talked about acid jazz, which we didn’t want to do. [laughter]
LA ROCCO: How long had the band been around before you came in, Kirk?
PETERSON: About five years.’91 to ’95.
BOYCE: Our last gig with Ayman was New Year’s Eve, ’94, in a thunderstorm. It was Biblical: we were in the upstairs room at the Paradise Lounge, raising hell. The next day, he was not with us anymore. And we found Kirk March of ’95, right on my birthday.
LA ROCCO: Did the band come together from conversations or from hearing each other?
BOYCE: Me and Kevin were playing noise in a band called UAF. And I was also playing a lot of straight ahead jazz, with people who just weren’t doing it for me. In the middle of one gig I was sitting there, listening to this guitar player I used to work with all the time, and it suddenly occurred to me, I hate this guy. I can’t stand the way this guy fucking plays. And I was like, I’m not doing this anymore. I knew that Kevin didn’t necessarily want to play jazz, and I didn’t necessarily need for him to want to play jazz; I just knew that whatever was going to happen, he was going to be involved.
CARNES: There definitely was a thing of, “here’s a cool person that fucking is blazing playing music.” And then later on, we had conversations about what we were relating to and wanting to express. That’s how we stumbled upon the name.
In the beginning, we sought out a lot of collaborators. And what they did dictated the style of music. If they were MCs maybe it was going to be some hip hop groovy jazz — all kind of different things stirred that pot. And still do. We have one guest scheduled for our next show: RadioActive. And a friend of ours, Charlotte Kaufman, is going to DJ.
Though, I don’t know, I personally like trios. The bigger the band the more of a headache it is.
LA ROCCO: Logistically or—?
CARNES: All of it.
BOYCE: Even just setting up.
CARNES: We take up a surprisingly large amount of space. [laughter]
LA ROCCO: I read that your name came out of thinking about conveying Surrealism musically.
BOYCE: I was watching Fellini movies at the time, and I was making whoever was in my house watch Fellini movies. Surrealism is not a mystery to either one of these cats, or Ayman. And we like soundtracks. I laid it on Kevin, and he had a notorious non-reaction. I don’t think he said anything. [laughs] And Ayman was violently opposed to it: “I don’t really feel like a Broun Fellini. What does that exactly mean?”
I was like, “Well, here’s what it means. They need to put something on the flier. The dude called me and we don’t have a name, so…” But I like to name things. You’re bringing a certain life to something and you’re marking it; you’re trying to push it off into the cosmos with positive intention. So you’ve got to really take some time. And we were opposed to the Kevin Carnes Trio or the David Boyce Trio. We wanted it to be its own thing.
LA ROCCO: Let the record show that Kevin had another non-reaction —
CARNES: Yeah. I nodded and smiled. I really like the name, though. We would just sit around drinking coffee for a couple hours, several days a week. [laughter] And so there were a lot of conversations: about the spirit of the surreal, the Harlem Renaissance and Fela Kuti, what we were or were not hearing in music.
LA ROCCO: What weren’t you hearing?
CARNES: Well, one thing that I was hearing was the idea that you could play whatever you want to play. Hearing Prince make a severe left turn and do a record that didn’t even have one attempt at a pop song on it. And then he did another one. Here’s a guy who’s on top of the world, and is just like, no, I’m going to go make Madhouse and I’m not going to put my name on it. You’ll only know when you look at the back of the record and see that it comes from Paisley Park. That was really inspiring. But we were listening to everything. And all this stuff surrounded us: art and humankind and the knuckleheads we were hanging out with.
BOYCE: Yeah. Painters, dancers. We were making things. It was awesome.
CARNES: But you know, like he said, you’ve got to put something on the flier. And that one resonated. The one main change we did make was changing the W to a U.
BOYCE: And that was controversial. Oh my God. “Why are you making it so difficult? You already had this weird name, Brown Fellinis. What does that exactly mean? Then you changed the W to a U? Bruuun.” I said, “It just looks like the U in sound, right? So broun, sound, because it’s a brown sound.” And it’s like, “Oh, it’s just more stuff to explain.” I was like, “Well, that’s fine. I’ve got time.” I think we always wanted to be instigators for a little bit of chaos. We may not have necessarily waved the flag about it but, there wasn’t too much we didn’t try.
LA ROCCO: Is that different than what you’ve been doing in recent years?
BOYCE: I think we’re still subversive; we don’t sound like anybody else. People see that it represents a certain freedom from convention — and these days, that’s subversive. Folks want things to line up properly. They want to be able to have a singalong. And you can’t necessarily sing along with us, unless you’ve been singing along with us for the last twenty-five years.
CARNES: Or you can, but it’s going to be whatever you make up. And we might try and do that together; we might not. And it might sound really beautiful and it might —
BOYCE: Not work.
CARNES: It might not work. [laughter]
BOYCE: And that’s okay, too.
LA ROCCO: What are you working to subvert? What are the expectations when you walk into a room?
BOYCE: That we’re going to play Reggae music. [laughter] Oh my God; my hair was long, Kirk’s hair has always been long, and Kevin fluctuates between being bald and being dread and nappy. If at least two of us were dread, somebody would ask us if we were playing Reggae music, invariably. And the answer was, yeah — we love dub music — but not necessarily the first couple songs. Maybe not for the first half hour. You have to get around people’s expectations of what you look like and what you should be sounding like. Like going to the jazz festival and not sounding like anyone else — which I think is a good thing. And just expectations about what black men are supposed to be playing.
We don’t have a piano or a guitar — that would always vex people. The piano is not in Indian music, it’s not in African music, it’s not in Chinese music, it’s not in Burmese music. This idea that we’re tethered to the piano because that’s the only way people in the West know how to make music was always pretty farcical to us.
LA ROCCO: You mentioned jazz — it’s always discombobulating when traditions rooted in innovation become mired in conservatism.
BOYCE: It’s circling the wagons and saying, this is it and the rest of you people are on the periphery. One of the reasons why so-called jazz music, or let’s just say creative instrumental music, is not doing so well is because certain people have tried to define it, and not let it breathe. Jazz has to find some way to incorporate dubstep and friggin’ whatever else into it, for the music to move beyond where it is now.
LA ROCCO: And then forms get reduced to conventions and styles.
BOYCE: And rules that can be taught in the conservatory: you can get a degree in it. Some so-called jazz musicians regurgitate Charlie Parker daily and look at you crazy if you don’t know anything about it, you know? Whereas these two people here are some of the heaviest jazz musicians I’ve ever encountered, and they would not call themselves jazz musicians because of their relationship to what I’m talking about. In fact, in many ways, they’re heavier, because they actually have the spirit of jazz. That spirit of exploration; understanding that if there’s ten saxophone players, you need to find a way not to sound like them, but still be able to relate to them. All the jazz greats have that. Nowadays, everyone sounds the same; they’re looking over their shoulder.
LA ROCCO: Is that a result of market forces, or the university system taking over?
CARNES: Both. One drives the other. One thing that I see, for instance, in the Bay Area venue scene — not so much the bands — is that there aren’t too many risk takers. There aren’t too many people who don’t have a bottom line. And I hear, “Oh, is the scene dying?” Well, it’s not flourishing because people aren’t invested in it flourishing. That takes more than bands trying to monetize their Facebook page and guarantee they’ll bring eighty people into a venue. That was one thing that aided us: cool people opened cool venues, and they were down to have a band and give them the door on a Tuesday night.
LA ROCCO: What are some of the places you’re thinking of?
CARNES: The Up & Down Club and the Elbo Room and Bruno’s and—
BOYCE: Spike’s Café.
CARNES: The Brave New World. Donington Park. You weren’t confined to just Friday and Saturday; you were free to explore. There were people interested in mixing it up a little bit so it wasn’t just about jazz at a jazz venue but… jazz and a DJ on dance music. And galleries hosting whatever.
LA ROCCO: When did that close up?
BOYCE: The dot-com thing squelched it. Mid to late ’94, you got the rumblings. You started hearing about OMI — owners moving in. And people started getting kicked out. It was like a brush fire. I’ll never forget this — we came back from being on tour with Ben Harper in the spring of ’96, and the first influx of new people had moved here. It went to the dark side really quickly.
Also, electronic music became the focus. A lot of venues didn’t want to deal with bands anymore. They could just pay a DJ $200 and that person would hand out 3,000 fliers and pack the joint out. The whole rave thing became like the tentacles of a hydra, taking over San Francisco.
But then we would get these software company gigs. You remember those?
CARNES: Oh, yeah.
BOYCE: Ridiculous. They’d give you $2,000 to play at their Christmas party, and it’d just be stupid jumbo shrimp, trays of jumbo shrimp, everywhere. We would trade stories about crazy internet start-up gigs, it got to be a running joke. People talk about it how brutal regentrification is now, but it was some cold shit back then. Now, they have to dance through some hoops to get you out. Then, it was just like, “Yo, my daughter’s moving in, you need to go.” And people would have to go. Clubs getting harassed — people could just move in the neighborhood and close a club down because it was loud.
LA ROCCO: How do you think about your music’s relationship to the body?
BOYCE: I think we’re a heavy body band. We used to get very adventurous dancers at our shows. Sometimes they were from the dance community; other times, they were just maybe high, drunk, and feeling it. They would start moving, and sometimes it would not be acceptable movement for some individuals, at a so-called jazz show that other people were sitting down at. I’d get weird questions: “Do you like when people dance to your music?” Framed in such a way where it’d be negative. I’d always have to laugh at that.
CARNES: Everything is danceable.
CARNES: If you’re going to come in the room and not want to feel the air moving, don’t come to see us.
LA ROCCO: Mm-hm. The insidious implication is that it’s more serious if the body is still.
BOYCE: Exactly, yeah. The so-called serious music now known as jazz was serious dance music for the first thirty, forty years of inception; just because you’re dancing does not mean you’re not having an intellectual experience. That’s one of the main critiques of jazz, that it’s all head-and-shoulders-music now — it’s not moving down to the ankles and beneath the ground. A lot of these guys, the shit is about their own little devices and inside jokes; it’s not trying to reach out. As abstract as we always were, everything came from this sense of groove and time, and the body set in motion. That’s the cornerstone of black music. Ornette. Fucking Sun Ra. He always brought dancers with him. From the fifties on. So there’s always been that connection; we’re just part of that tree.
CARNES: That’s the brown part. [laughter]
LA ROCCO: Who are some of the artists you’re in conversation with?
PETERSON: I draw influences from all different things. There’s music, of course — the dynamics of the Pixies, for example. Comedians, lately, have been sources of inspiration. Paul Mooney and Patton Oswalt. Aries Spears, Just listening to the same joke they do over and over again in their routine, how they change it and adapt it. Or with dancers who are actually listening to us, when we’re doing a very abstract piece — maybe they’ll draw on form, but they have to spin off of it, as well. So there’s a level of improvisation through any sort of genre that I find compelling. It’s breaking the pattern.
CARNES: Those are the people that inspire me the most — folks who can crack the pattern open, giving you whatever you already know, but somehow moving it forward. Or not even forward, but somewhere else. I like those people in sport, I like those people in art, I like those people in politics — if ever. [laughter] And, as much as I can name off whatever huge list of musicians these guys— the bands that don’t work far outnumber the ones that do; it’s a blessing that we’ve been able to push and support one another in this endeavor.
I like celebrating things — birthdays, milestones, all that crap — I’m excited about sharing that energy with people. And relationships that are pretty thick at this point: watching people get married and have kids and buy houses and be in other bands and all sorts of things. I’m proud of that stuff.
LA ROCCO: How do you think music functions politically today?
BOYCE: I think the way certain musicians have lived is political. Prince — when he got out of his contract with Warner Brothers he didn’t necessarily end an era of artist enslavement to the corporation, but he ushered in this DIY thing that everybody embraces now. And he always stood up for the unheard voice. Someone like John Coltrane, you don’t necessarily know what his political stance was, but he would go hear Malcolm X speak, you know? And he wrote a song called Alabama, after the church bombings. The best hip hop, in the early days, was political. Public Enemy, that was their whole thing. And now it’s just tales of gangsterism and nonsense.
LA ROCCO: What about music itself, the structure? Maybe it relates to something you were talking about earlier, the possibility of change, that type of freedom?
BOYCE: Yeah, how many musics are truly free? The level of conformity starts to suggest there’s something else going on, you know? If you are able to break away from that and still get through, you’ve created a revolutionary act. I mean, you just got your song on the radio, so maybe it’s not that heavy. But. someone’s going to hear your song and be like, whoa, that doesn’t fucking sound like anything else on the radio; if they go investigate you and find out what you stand for, you’ve lit a fire under somebody.
On a more concrete level, we had our Broundation, and we gave like fifteen grand away. For an indie band in San Francisco — nobody else was doing that.
LA ROCCO: What’d you give the money to?
CARNES: Various organizations. Omega Boys Club.
BOYCE: Food Not Bombs. An AIDS hospice. The Mother Teresa ladies — that was brilliant, just to ring their doorbell and hand them five grand. They were just like, “Who are you guys?” [laughs] We’ve always been hooked up with this idea that what we’re doing is connected to the greater situation.
CARNES: I would add, as well, an idea of affecting or enhancing the awareness of those around us, and hoping that that’s a ripple in the pond. That’s a bit more of an abstraction of the idea, but it’s how I participate politically. Those people who dance and work up a sweat at our shows, I’m so happy for them — that’s some stuff they got out. We used to play at this one club in North Beach, and this one corner, was like magic. If a couple sat in that corner, they were going to be making out in like, ten minutes. We were playing some wild, freaky-ass music… and you look over, and that couple was doing it.
BOYCE: [laughs] It happened every single time.
CARNES: Every single time. People used to come to our show and lie right in front of us — and pass out — just lying there with their eyes closed, on the floor. At the Elbo Room, with 200 other people!
LA ROCCO: How we think about public space — or when public space is even possible — has changed radically. In a city where clubs are becoming these wildlife preserves, the ability to make and hold a public space becomes profound.
CARNES: To be able to function — and especially let loose — in those spaces. All the people that get on the train and dance or play music and we want to regulate them immediately. If there is some public space, then how free can it be?
LA ROCCO: You mentioned earlier that you weren’t interested in talking technically about music — can you say a bit more about that?
BOYCE: I was just referring to the negative effects of talking in a certain way — music has such a deep spiritual resonance that the sound of it, to me at least, has more intensity than its makeup. Like, okay, an E minor scale with a sharp nine or something — that sounds a certain way. But when you play that for people and they have this reaction, it’s beyond the fact that you’re in E minor and you’ve done something to the ninth note in the scale. The unknown is always treacherous territory, right? We can reduce everything to little equations and it makes some people feel comfortable, but it makes me even more agitated, because now everyone’s going to think your numerical answer for everything is what is really going on. I like when people ask me about my processes, but I always remind them there’s some other shit going on.
CARNES: I want to know what it’s about. Okay, cool, you’re playing whatever kind of scale; but what is it about? What is your story, what else is there to this? I love to talk shop, but even that has to be about something. That’s a thing I really like about David naming things. Just our set list and all the words on it. It’s thought-provoking.
LA ROCCO: That’s always the tension with language: When does it open up our relationship to art and when does it shut down?
PETERSON: Yeah. There are always those people, they walk into the room, they have expectations because of what they’ve heard and they don’t like what they’re actually getting — so they jet. I like to think, though, that a bunch of people have come with some expectations and gotten more than that. I’ve seen those glazed eyes and sweaty brows and I-just-came-three-times-and-it-was-epic looks on their faces, when they leave. Or just a simple thank you. And then I know that —
BOYCE: They were listening.
CARNES: I just thought of something silly, but — those moments when I see the music challenging people and they don’t know what to do, I think about “speak stick and carry a big softly.” [laughter] I’m going to hug you to death. I try not to let go of my sense of humor, even in my angry moments; we’re all in the room together. We have songs that call up deep emotions. So I try and go there. It’s not so much like I’m trying to be funny, but I’m also not bogging down in a kind of seriousness.
LA ROCCO: You’ve all been describing finding what the dominant pattern is, and then looking for places to change it.
PETERSON: It’s a new way of telling a story. Even if it’s the same story. That’s why the comedian connection.
BOYCE: Timing and phrasing. Space. Comedians can teach you a lot about that. The very best ones have an awesome relationship to space.
LA ROCCO: What did you say earlier, David, about a song of yours — that it was somewhere between Dr. Seuss and Ornette Coleman?
BOYCE: I think we’re pretty funny — just to try to play like we’re trying to play is kind of funny. This guy wrote about us really early on, and I think he called us controlled, exacting chaos.
BOYCE: He got it. Chaos always reminds me of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Even though coyote would fall off the cliff all the goddamned time and his little Acme thing would never work, it was still unpredictable; you always got the sense that something crazy was going to happen in the next frame. I always hoped people got that about us.
LA ROCCO: There’s always another cliff.
BOYCE: Exactly. But you won’t get hurt jumping off, because it’s music.