Music In Conversation
“Brooklyn used to be called a borough. I don’t know what they call it now.”
—Man on the street
Upon the release of Talibam!’s (keyboardist Matthew Mottel and drummer Kevin Shea) two new recordings on ESP, HARD VIBE and Endgame Of The Anthropocene, and their incredible record release party at Holo this fall—which included Battle Trance’s Matt Nelson on sax and pianist Ron Stabinsky, who both appear on HARD VIBE—I decided to both interview and intervene as the two sat down to discuss their origins and various projects; attempting to levitate Vice magazine into the East River, AtlantASS, their ongoing interest in ecology; and their overall Dadaist serious fun and antics.
Steve Dalachinsky (Rail): I will try to make this conversation as unintellectual and unenlightening as possible, so before I cut you loose to tear each other apart my first big question is WHY? When did the group form, why the name? Kevin, have you always played drums? Matt, keyboards??
Kevin Shea (Shea): We formed in 2003 after meeting in Williamsburg at a Free 103 jam session curated by Ras Moshe. We both appreciated each other’s spastic energy and interest in quick listening and interaction not based on specific genre-baiting.
The name comes from a 2001 New York Post headline. The impetus for using it as a band name comes from a revulsion for the crassness of the headline, a desire to want to engage with it in order to change its meaning and context, and we also felt it was the most relevant band name. Too many bands had politically vapid names, and that seemed too insulting considering the horrific political experience and aftermath of 9/11.
Rail: Can you speak a bit about your other projects aside from Talibam!?
Shea: I moved to Pittsburgh in 1993 after finishing at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I played in multiple groups and had multiple self-made limited releases from ‘93 to ‘97 (the year I moved to NYC), like a trio with Micah Gaugh (whose new 2017 album I play on). Then Touch and Go Records released two Storm&Stress albums (‘97 and 2000). After Storm&Stress stopped playing in 2000, I met Mary Halvorson—we formed our band People (just played together at Moers in 2017). Mostly Other People Do The Killing started as a group in 2003. Talibam! was formed the same year, and I started putting out albums shortly after with all of the above and others, continuing to play with all of the above today.
Rail: Why keyboards?
Matt Mottel (Mottel): I had piano lessons at age five and played Scott Joplin. When I was sixteen I found my way towards Sun Ra and the Stooges. Even though I loved punk rock, I didn’t play guitar. I could play drums, but keyboard seemed to be the most expressive and extreme instrument I could play. Funk and blues with overdrive, white noise, an LFO and filter sweep; you’ll know it’s me. My other bands, Platinum Vision, Alien Whale, CSC Funk Band, are all unique in approach. Each band fills a desire. One group will never be enough.
Rail: Speak a bit about your dad’s archive.
Mottel: In 2009, Suzanne Fiol, the founder of ISSUE Project Room, selected me to be Artist in Residence. I felt it was time to investigate my Dad’s archive further; 500 folders of contact sheets documenting 1960s and ‘70s political and cultural life. The archive connected my creative interests to what he witnessed and documented. My goal is for his archive to be used as source material for other people’s research and artistic expression. I am thrilled that his book with Buckminster Fuller, CHARAS: The Improbable Dome Builders (1973), is being republished by Song Cave/Pioneer Works this fall. It documents geodesic dome building on the Lower East Side built by CHARAS. It is an important story of self-determination and a positive example of collective action.
Mottel and Shea interviewed each other at my behest:
Mottel: Is music able to communicate outward, or is it an internal dialogue that measures one’s own development and motivations?
Shea: Sound is a noumenon, at best, and yet readily interpretable by the physiology of humans in that it occupies a specific set of perceptible frequencies. There is a causal relationship between objective experience and the mind’s mode of organization. We impose order on the world innately as humans, and thus the bastardization of sound into emotional content proceeds undaunted. Universal sonic knowledge is impossible—our own human interpretation and experience is rational and relevant only in contextual terms.
Mottel: What is the narrative of Talibam! you’d like to communicate?
Shea: Talibam!’s ultimate goal has been to wed disparate ideologies through proficiency, controversy, inquiry, and compassion. Talibam! has remained devoted to the belief that the application of diversity in sound is paramount to the appreciation of diversity among fellow beings. Talibam! delights in creating music that cannot be pinned down within the safe-spaces of existing genres. With each new album, Talibam! reinvents its methodological palette in order to bolster a fresh clarity of joyous auditory surprise, something its fans have come to depend on.
Mottel: What do you think our long-term relationship offers our collaborators?
Shea: We’ve been a band, for fifteen years, based on conceptual exploration, not on monetary reward. This means not only that we love what we do and are curious to explore more, but also that we are fearless because no one is telling us what to do. If you aren’t fearless, don’t work with Talibam!
Shea: Miles Davis famously said, “You know why I quit playing ballads? ‘Cause I love playing ballads.” I think you play drones sometimes because you simply don’t love them enough. Do you agree? Why hasn’t Talibam! made an all-ballads record yet?
Mottel: Drones are part of a larger sonic system. They are one ingredient. On HARD VIBE with Matt Nelson and Ron Stabinsky, I wanted to explore the history of NYC rock minimalism, which is deeply influenced by non-western drone music. In our composition, we add new elements; Nelson taking a hard bop solo over Stabinsky’s jazz chord comping to compliment my repetitive riff. If the piece had just been all of us droning for forty minutes then the music is not being pushed. As for a ballad record, it’s the drummer who brings the tempo, so I’ll play ballads if you want to lay into that pocket!
Shea: I have heard you describe Neil Young’s tone with high regard. How does the notion of tone inform your playing, and how do you reconcile the loss of ideal tone when borrowing amps every night on tour?
Mottel: Bio-cybernetics is the realization that nature will create an X factor or chaos and undermine the cybernetic system. Traveling without backline is an experiment in bio-cybernetic theory. We find a way to exist and thrive despite never having the exact same equipment. My ideal tone is embedded in the exploration.
Shea: Your father always had great and valuable critique for Talibam!, at one point even suggesting we brand our genre-hopping style as “rockatainment.” In what way is his influence ingrained in your musical personality on the keyboard; through approach, sound or exploration, etc?
Mottel: My dad offered valuable advice in performance; keep it short, move on to the next idea, tell the story through action and leave the audience wanting more.
Shea: Next year will be the fifteenth year of Talibam!’s existence as a band. How should we celebrate?
Mottel: I want to continue to collaborate with artists who inspire and challenge us. I would like to organize a Talibam! extravaganza that brings our closest collaborators and old/new friends to as many locations around the world as possible. Let's look forward to another fifteen years!
In making a case for Talibam! one can agree, disagree, or agree to disagree with Commes des Garcons founder/designer Rei Kawakubo when she states, “All art is commercial. It’s always been commercial—more, in fact, today than ever before... I am a businesswoman before all else.” And Talibam! in their own inimitable way is living proof of that dictum. So listen with your one good ear if you have one left.
Now you are on your own…