We Are: An Interview with David FirstBy Greg Olear
January 17, 2012
In his long and varied career, David First has performed at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations, released a three-CD album of drone music, created sound installations in Belgium and Denmark, composed an opera, been apotheosized as a guitar god by Time Out New York, been named one of the top 100 New Yorkers for his post-9/11 song “Jump Back,” won grants from the Foundation of Contemporary Performance Arts (an organization founded by John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copland Foundation, and the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust; and, perhaps most notably, influenced the musical stylings of Sonic Youth’s then-youthful Thurston Moore.
A musician known for drones and 15-minute instrumentals is an unlikely candidate to write a protest song, but that’s what First has now done. “We Are,” his new composition, was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests born in lower Manhattan, where he lived for many years. The song — by the collective New Party Systems, which features, among other luminaries, TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone on lead vocals and Stephanie St. John (yes, that Stephanie St. John) on backing vocals — was released last week over at Pitchfork; among the many people from many countries in the video are the students at UC Davis who were pepper-sprayed.
I sat down with First. Here’s what he had to say:
Let’s start with some background. You’re from Philadelphia, where, back in the day, you were the guitarist in a band called The Notekillers. This was, what, the late 70s?
Yeah, Halkin, our drummer, and I started jamming together sometime in 1976 and then Bilenky, our bass player, joined in 1977. Somewhere in between those two things, I started to construct song-type objects and we started calling ourselves the Notekillers out of our deep disdain and mistrust of such things as melodies and chords.
I was curious how you chose that name—if notes really were put to death.
We never actually killed them as much as tortured them—kicked them around a bit. But why dither over details?
The Notekillers recorded a song called “The Zipper,” which was released as a single. Years later, after the band had broken up, you found out that this single influenced a (sonically) young Thurston Moore. In an article in MOJO, he called it “mind-blowing.” That article inspired the band to get back together and record some new material.
Oh, you know, it’s just your typical 20-years-later overnight sensation. In 2001 a old friend called Halkin and told him that he saw “somewhere” (either he or Halkin couldn’t remember) that Thurston had mentioned us in an article on songs he played for the rest of the band when they were just starting out. It sounded insane to me. I was sure that the old friend screwed up his facts and that I was going to be totally humiliated after getting in touch with the guy. But lo and behold, it was true, and he was almost as excited as I was, because though he seemed to already know about my work as an experimental composer, he had very little concrete information about the Notekillers—it was all a bit of a mystery that I was happy to solve. And soon after we began conspiring to compile a bunch of material from old tapes I had and release it on Ecstatic Peace, his label.
But you re-formed.
Somewhere right before the album came out in 2004, the three of us had the crazy notion to try suiting up, as it were, one more time. I mean, I stopped playing at “rock musician” somewhere around 1984 or so, because I thought I was getting too old and out of touch. So maybe I just reincarnated and I didn’t even realize it, but here I am almost 30 years past that already-liberal expiration date and, well, yeah, here I am!
How did the new songs—one of which, “Eyelash,” you graciously let me use for the Fathermucker book trailer—come about?
I told the other guys that I refused to be an oldies act – if it wasn’t a creative venture for me, I wasn’t interested. So I started bringing in new material and eventually, after a couple of false starts, we had enough to release an album, We’re Here to Help (Prophase Records), in 2010. It’s a vinyl release, so maybe that explains the 30 year gap—we were just waiting for vinyl to make a serious comeback.
Your own music tends toward the experimental—you incorporate drones and interference beats. And yet “We Are” sounds less like the work of an avant garde composer and more like a showstopper from Hair (and I mean that as a compliment). It’s enormously catchy. How did you pull that off?
Well, I guess I don’t exactly know. The one luxury that one has as an under-the-radar musician is, nobody’s telling you what to do. There are other pressures—rent, food, etc. But you can do what you want without any know-nothing saying, “It’s not what the public wants.” On the other hand, I consider myself an experimental musician because I love to experiment with sound. So, I have given myself permission, somehow, to do drone music, noisy rock & roll and, yeah, a freaking pop-type thing once in a while if I feel like. It’s kind of like a farmer’s crop rotation that keeps the ground fertile.
Pop songs as cash crops?
If by cash crop you mean something that has the potential to grab the attention of mainstream culture, sure. But I have to be pretty damn inspired to write a song with lyrics. And, to the point of perversity, perhaps, I have to know inside it’s for some other reason then to “get over” commercially. I mean, I love ’em, I’ve had times of listening to nothing but great pop songs, but 99.9% of the time I feel a stronger pull towards exploring more exotic terrain. Having said that, sometimes the only way to express something—and reach a wide swath of the population, if that’s the intent—is to blatantly and directly address it in song.
I think of it as a musical exercise. If you’re trying to write an anthemic, voice-of-a-generation protest song, it’s supposed to sound like something from 1969. A fifteen-minute drone piece wouldn’t achieve the desired effect. When they asked Paul McCartney to write a James Bond song, what he wrote didn’t sound like “She Loves You”; it sounded like the Bond theme.
Well, this is going to sound cocky, but the only way this all works for me is to make rules for myself – kind of make a game out of it. Yeah, an exercise! I decided at some point that I wanted to write something that could possibly play the role of an anthem. I wanted it to be positive with not too much simplistic finger-pointing, and with some kind of emotionally-open chord progression. But, honestly, all that means is that I accessed a certain sincere part of myself – the part that could’ve been in the “Notelovers”. The dirty little secret of the Notekillers is that, even back in the day, if you came over to the house we all lived in, you’d be just as likely to catch us listening to Joni Mitchell as the Clash.
What’s your favorite Joni Mitchell song? Mine is “Ladies of the Canyon.”
Probably “Judgement of the Moon and Stars” from For the Roses, or “Song for Sharon” from Hejira. But, if this makes any sense, I think the most perfect song she ever wrote is probably “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” also from For the Roses.
This is not the first time you’ve been inspired by events in lower Manhattan to write a song. You wrote and recorded “Jump Back,” soon after September 11, 2001. You were very close to Ground Zero that morning.
I was living a couple blocks away from theWorldTradeTowers, saw, heard and felt them get hit and collapse. And after getting back into my loft a couple weeks later—following a forced evacuation—I was moved to do something to express the situation. I needed to do it for myself, and I hoped that the song would resonate with others. The fact that so many friends and strangers told me how much it helped them get through those first few weeks and months was extremely gratifying. I guess the only thing I can say is that sometimes you just gotta put down the ship-in-a-bottle tweezers and help build a shelter instead.
New Party Systems includes, among other notables, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. How do you know each other?
He came to a Notekillers show a couple of years ago, and we became friends. He’s really one amazing guy. And he’s not only the best singer I know, he’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. So, I pretty much felt like I was dreaming when hearing his voice coming out of the studio monitors singing my words.
Yeah, he’s pretty amazing. He has tremendous gravitas.
I knew he was the perfect person for the song. I’ve had many incredible moments in this little journey and one of them was definitely when he said he dug the song and wanted to do it.
Tell us how “We Are” came about.
It came about because I ran into all the principals involved—Kyp, Bernard and Greg—
Bernard Gann, of Liturgy, and Greg Fox, formerly of Liturgy, and now of Guardian Alien.
—the first time I went down to the Occupation at Zuccotti, maybe two weeks into the thing. But, to be honest, I just didn’t feel needed there at all. It kind of threw me into a bit of a tailspin. I was totally moved and inspired by what people were doing down there, but I felt like I had nothing to personally offer. What is the role of an experimental composer in a survivalist society, you know? Not exactly needed on the front lines.
I know too well. Novelists are not high on the list of people who will wind up in the bunker with Dr. Strangelove.
So after going back a few times and doing errands for various departments, I started feeling like I needed to find something more. I mean, I was happy to do anything down there, wash dishes, etc., but even that wasn’t needed. They had more than enough bodies for those kinds of things. Then, at some point, ideas started coming to me and I arranged a meeting to talk to the other guys I had run into. We decided to form an organization that could put on benefit shows and record music in support of the Movement. It just seemed like a better use of all of our skill-sets. And thus, New Party Systems, came into being.
That’s the new band.
No! It is not a band. We consider ourselves a collective – a loosely-knit group of sympathetic artists that comes together to do whatever seems necessary. And, though we are hugely, directly, inspired by OWS, we reserve the right to support any cause or organization we deem worthy. Our first benefit show back in October was indeed for the Zuccotti Park kitchen that needed some supplies, but we’re doing a show at Union Pool in Brooklyn on January 18th and the proceeds from that will go to help the recovery of Jonathan Toubin—an awesome DJ, writer, impresario, and friend who was involved in a bizarre and terrible accident in late 2011.
You went down to Zuccotti Park to record a chant to use in the song.
Actually, I recorded that chant as a video on my phone during the morning of the March on Wall Street back on November 17th with no intentions at all other than to have a memento. Using it at the end of the song popped into my head days later. And, amazingly, it fit perfectly into the tempo that I had already chosen. It was some kind of sign from the Universe.
Who else worked on the recording?
Well, besides the gentlemen mentioned above, we had a wonderful group of people singing the choruses and background vocals – Nick Hallett, Dafna Naphtali, Stephanie St John, and my wife, Mira Hirsch. Mira sang the demo I made for everyone, and they all said she should be on the real thing! But I am totally grateful for all their great energy and lovely singing. Everybody involved in this project is a friend AND one of the best artists I know – Bernard and Greg both killed it from beginning to end. The only person I didn’t know personally beforehand, Colin Marston – whose studio we used and who has engineered everything we’ve done to date – is also now someone I consider a friend and an incredible engineer. He had an enormous amount to do with making and capturing whatever magic occurred. He is also an astounding and completely intimidating guitarist and musician to boot.
The video features people from around the world lip-syncing to the song. Among those featured are the students at UC Davis who were pepper-sprayed. How did you get them involved?
Bob Ostertag – who is a pioneer in the use of sampling in experimental music as well as a long-time political activist – is a faculty member at UC Davis. In the wake of the incident back in November, he wrote an article here about it that I read and found very moving. It was director Toni Comas’ idea to gather people from all over the world, but especially, if possible, from all of the Movement hotspots – Tunisia, Madrid, London, Italy and, of course, New York. So I reached out to Bob and asked him if he wished to take part. It was Bob’s amazing idea to gather those kids and spray them with whipped cream! I couldn’t believe it – to see them lip-syncing my lyrics after all they’d gone through…it was like another dream. Maybe an even crazier one than hearing Kyp in the studio! I’m very grateful to them as well. And it looks like they had fun! But everyone in the video really got into the spirit — it was quite thrilling to see it all come together.
What’s next for New Party Systems?
“We Are” was done because I felt the strong need to create something that might have the possibility of inspiring people. I humbly hope it does. But it is a small part of what we do, and will be exploring, in the coming months. The plan is to record and perform more and bring even more people into the project. I know a lot of musicians from a lot of different scenes in NYC who have never played together and, in some cases, don’t even know of each other. And they should. In the spirit of the OWS model, the goal is to resolve all petty differences in the name of a much greater and more powerful good.
Final question: One of its criticisms by the mainstream media is that Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement with no real aim. I think this is actually its greatest strength—it allows people to interpret the economic inequality angle in their own way (as I did over at Occupy Writers). As you said, you’ve been supportive of OWS since its onset. What does it mean for you?
Well, I’ve been around long enough to see how almost every thoughtful, inspired thing gets corrupted by egos and divisive ambitions. From political movements to great rock bands. It’s almost inevitable. So, we’ll see. But I have great hopes that we’ve all learned from the past. I used to think that the only thing that could possibly bring the whole planet together would be invaders from another galaxy. But Wall Street bankers and their politician lackeys seem to be doing just fine in the role.
I’ll never forget the guitar lessons for $20 ad in the Village Voice that led me to David.
I think there was a catch, if you liked the first lesson, the second was $25 or something like that.
I remember the mountain of laundry that was hidden under a big blanket.
And around that mountain were pages of music he was writing, keyboards, a what would now be an ancient computer with some kind of rare music program on it, guitars, cables, pedals, etc. He would take a break from whatever he was working on to teach. He was the first person to have a real and lasting influence on my songwriting.
I’m so grateful that I got to be involved with any project with David. But especially this latest, which is really just a manifestation of David’s talent, vision and unrelenting quest for the truth through sound.
(And David: Judgement of the Moon and Stars is still my favorite JM song too!)
Great interview, Greggie!
Would that be the computer in which Tokyo could not be opened because Tokyo could not be found?
Haahhha! No. But close! I used to bring healthy snacks to our recording sessions to eat while we waited for whatever glitch would correct itself. Snacks became a big part of our time together. And one snack even ended up on one of the songs.
Just listened to The Zipper. Wow. That kills half the No Wave stuff out there on the latest comps. I dig it. It’s like Adrian Belew, if he was smarter and less interested in Scottish castles. Great interview.