Bablicon: A Flat Inside A Fog, The Cat That Was A Dog

Navel-Gazers #16 is an interview with "The Diminisher" (Dave McDonnell), "Blue Hawaii" (Griffin Rodriguez) and "Marta Tennae" (Jeremy Barnes) a.k.a. Bablicon who are going to talk to me about their third album A Flat Inside A Fog, The Cat That Was A Dog, released 20 years ago on Pickled Egg / Misra records. Bablicon are one of those groups that I always imagine being a household name for more eccentric and adventurous music listeners, but their work remains somewhat overlooked! Perhaps it's because it was unclassifiable, inaccurately filed under "rock" at my local record store back in 2001 and yet with Bablicon there was always too much studio-craft to be "jazz", too much song-craft to be "experimental", and certainly too much anarchy and mayhem for the confines of contemporary composition, chamber music or whatever such classifications might spring to mind. As a Navel-Gazer once said, the human mind loves contrast and this is what keeps me coming back to Bablicon, particularly 'A Flat Inside A Fog...' with its epic conglomeration of contrasts...acoustic with electronic, improvised with composed, and artifice with authenticity... 20 years later I can think of no better occasion for a retrospective with the group. Let's babble!

AC: Thanks for joining me guys. So in this interview we're going to focus on 'A Flat Inside A Fog...' but let's start a bit earlier. How did Bablicon form originally? Were you all living in Chicago? Dave it looks like you were certainly based in Chicago at that time, teaching music, active in the scene... Griffin you appear to be a Chicago native as well. I don't know why but I always thought of you as a Philly guy, perhaps due to your association with Need New Body! And Jeremy - from what I've been able to glean - something of a nomad. So how did you three meet and decide to form Bablicon?

Dave McDonnell: Andrew, it's funny how you mention Philly, because Bablicon and other groups related to Bablicon always had a strong connection to that city and now I just happen to be living and raising my two girls here.

I grew up in the suburbs directly north of Chicago along the lake, the "North Shore". I moved to the city for college in 1994, I was studying music composition at DePaul.

I can only give you my memory of how we all met, but as I remember it was my junior year at DePaul (so 1997) and I started seeing this somewhat jacked-up white early 1990s Toyota Tercel hatchback with a figure of a man wearing a hat done up in black paint on the hood, it made me think of Ska at the time. I'd see this car parked in the lot in front of the music department. I kept wondering who owned this car until finally one day I saw Griffin loading his upright bass into the back of it (later I would experience how Griffin could fit his upright and sometimes 2 additional people into this car).

Anyways, I think we noticed wach other around the department, I'd sometimes see him through the window of a rehearsal room with a jazz trio. One morning I was leaving Chinese class, it was in this building that looked like a giant cheese grater called McGraw (they've knocked it down) and we found ourselves right by each other in the hallway. I have to add that at that time I was working with a drummer named Mike Reed (he's still playing these days) and our bass player had left our trio. I had told Reed that I had my eye on someone who might be a good replacement (Griffin of course) I just needed the right time to bump into him somewhere. At the time I was playing soprano saxophone and trying to get my piano skills up a couple notches by doing improvisations every day and recording them on a cassette handheld. I'd listen to them back later in the evening when I made dinner at my tiny apartment on Belden Ave.

So there we were in the giant cheese grater and we started talking, I told Griffin I had a drummer I worked with, and we needed a bass player - then he told me he was working with a drummer (Jeremy) and they were looking for someone who could play keyboards and saxophone. Then he asked me if I knew Trout Mask Replica and if I liked Captain Beefheart's sax playing on that album. I immediately said yes I did, I'd had that album for a couple of years and was really intrigued by it, but all of the people I knew thought it was crap. We went to write down each other's number (remember, no smartphones) and I remember we both had the same uni-ball ink pen, a small thing perhaps, but both of us were like "man, isn't this the greatest pen!?".

There is much more about what happened after that, which I remember, but I should let the others take a stab first (I can't remember how Griff and Jeremy met), I do want to say though for me it's always been significant that the reason I ended up in that situation was because I didn't play guitar (I still really can't actually!), they were trying to do something different and I think they figured the best way to do that was just to insert something different into the very DNA of the group, by not using a guitar. Not that there's anything wrong with guitar, I still intend to learn to play at some point...!

Griffin Rodriguez: I grew up on the Northside of Chicago - lakeview/uptown. I went to Whitney Young High School where I started playing bass (upright/electric) at 15. I also sang in the choir there as well as the Chicago Children's Choir. I applied and was accepted at the DePaul School of Music in 1995. Before my first year there was a class for incoming freshmen named Discover Chicago and I applied with a general hunger for learning more about the city my parents and I were born in.

I met Jeremy Barnes in this program at a Sikh temple on the northwest side. We bonded over how cool the tabla player was and what a great experience it was in general.

My Dad is a painter/abstract expressionist artist and I had an affiniy for music of the world from him as well as my singing experience.

Jeremy and I instantly became friends and had many adventures in the first year of life at DePaul. Jeremy was already a professional musician and had an album out with his band. I was very impressed by this and we started to randomly jam in his dorm room (he had brought a drumset with him to University).

In the winter term of the first year Jeremy tried out for Neutral Milk Hotel when Jeff Mangum and Julian Koster came to town. He became their new drummer and left for tour. After half a year touring with Neutral Milk Hotel he called me to tell me he was coming back to DePaul. This fall of 1996 I met David as he mentioned at the music school. Jeremy and I had been really into Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" that fall. When I found that Dave really liked Captain Beefheart's soprano sax playing (and he played keys), I realized we were meant to play together.

Dave and I started hanging as well and we would listen to Leonard Cohen, eating cornmeal hash and I also heard Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" for the first time in his little basement apartment in Lincoln Park.

Jeremy and I played in more random spaces together until I found a huge loft to live in that at first I moved into and then we both lived at. This loft was run by some 80s/90s industrial type dudes who had affinity for recording and we were able to start jamming and recording to four track cassette. I had a rudimentary set of recording gear because I had already recorded my bands and others for years - I was going to DePaul for Sound Recording Technology.

Jeremy Barnes: I grew up in New Mexico, yearning to move to a big city and a more lively music scene. I started playing in bars around Albuquerque when I was 16. I moved to Chicago in the fall of 1995 to attend DePaul. I took the train there, a two day trip, and I remember leaving the station in a daze, walking around Chicago for the first time, and I thought "I need to find a band, drop out of college and go on tour by the end of the year."

Griff and I did meet in a Sikh temple, and we had both been to see the Blues Explosion the night before. He was my guide to Chicago, we drove around in his car with the man painted on the hood, visiting record shops, thrift stores, diners, cruising. That was the beginning of many hours spent in a car with Griffin, usually listening to either Trout Mask Replica, Motown or Alice Coltrane. If we weren't talking about the music we were making jokes. In those early days, he had tapes of the Chicago bands of the time- Shellac, Tar, Jesus Lizard, but also Jimi Hendrix. I was probably trying to turn him onto the Who and Led Zeppelin. I wasn't really a professional musician and didn't have any music out, but we were both seriously hungry... and seriously green. Our lives revolved around music (still does) and things like school were just distractions getting in the way of our goals.

I ended up joining Neutral Milk Hotel and dropping out that year, I made it until Spring Break and then moved to New York. I had just turned 19. But Griffin and I stayed in touch, and I attempted to be more serious at school when Neutral Milk went on a break before recording the second album. So I headed back to Chicago.

At that point I had been on the road with a band, a dream come true, and so being thrust back into the very tedious life of a college student was quite painful. In that first semester I was living in the dorms. In need of my own space, I moved my bed into a closet and lived in there, using tin foil as wallpaper and strings of Christmas lights as my main source of light. It was a good set up for listening to music and one Saturday night Griffin and I were exploring new ways of seeing (via a substance that I don't really need to disclose), when someone lent me a copy of Trout Mask Replica. We sat in my closet all night and listened to the album on repeat. Over and over and over. It was like a new world had opened up. It was the smallest, strangest rave I had ever been to.

That record was the key to moving us into new areas of music- disregarding what might be fashionable at the time and just doing our own thing. Captain Beefheart's music wasn't something we wanted to copy- we wanted/needed to do our own thing- but it was a diving board into a weird pool of Unorthodox music and musical techniques, that is still pushing us forward today. We needed a third person to complete the triangle. Every musician we knew was either deeply into late '90's hardcore or Yes and Tower of Power. But there was one stange character who lurked around the music school wearing tiny psychiatrist's spectacles and a traditional Chinese shirt. His afro worked well with Griff's; kind of like how Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding all had great hair. It made me wish I could grow an afro. . . Anyway, as Griffin and I drove around in his little white car with his giant bass in the back he talked about how he would go about luring this person into our realm...

AC: What a cool origin story, told from three different angles!

One thing I like about Bablicon is how despite having a really unique sound, you're not shy to acknowledge a wide range of influences, either in anecdotes like these or in the music itself, the way it sounds. Just looking at 'A Flat Inside A Fog..." I can clearly point to the Jesus Lizard and Shellac thing on the more abrasive tracks like Pigeon Of Doom, I can hear echoes of Out To Lunch on Blu Hawaii (the song) and the influence of Alice Coltrane, Trout Mask Replica and all the various exotic music of the world which is evident throughout your work. So how exactly did you guys channel all this inspiration into original material? How, where and when was it that you settled on things like melodies, riffs, patterns, compositions, titles etc which would make up the Babli-Canon, and how collaborative was that process?

Dave McDonnell: I don't think we ever consciously tried to work any particular influence into what we did, I seem to remember that in general if it sounded too much like something someone had already done, we would steer away from it. I do remember finally hearing The Soft Machine after we'd already been playing for a while and being sort of shocked and also excited that someone had tried something similar before and been successful.

For me I think the thing that had the biggest impact on our music was that most of our songs started out as an idea that was written on the piano, there were songs that started out as actual bass riffs (like Bahamut, or Mary) but it seems to me that it was mostly piano.

Right from the beginning all of us had riffs or outlines of songs that we had worked a little on our own and then would bring to the others. Usually whoever was playing keyboard would determine a lot about the format of the song: if I was playing keys, it would be the default trio set up with Griffin on bass and Jeremy on drums. When Jeremy played keyboard I'd usually end up on saxophone or clarinet and Griffin on upright bass (Travelling is a good example, although I remember an early Jeremy song called "El Tapito" where I would play saxophone and bass drum and hi hat with my feet). When Griffin came in with a piano song they tended to be studio/overdub creations which we didn't do live that much, because I was a crappy bass player and only a passable drummer(!).

AC: Yeah Dave, I've never really considered the significance of Bablicon being a "no-guitar" group, which is a useful frame of reference from a 90s-rock context in which people might have encountered your music. That is you were almost like an inside-out rock group, or the inverse of one, placing all these elements which are normally relegated to the fringes - the piano, the electronics, the skronky horns - right at centre stage where the unwitting listener might expect to find guitars and vocals.

Griffin Rodriguez: Your point here about the inside out rock group is very interesting. If my memory serves me right, all of us were into the solo records of Brian Eno at this time and certainly the solo records of Robert Wyatt. I remember reading something by Eno where he described how most pop music was built (compositionally and mix/levels wise) on a triangle or pyramid shape with the vocal or vocals being at the apex, then melodic instruments followed by chordal instruments and then bass and percussion forming the base or the foundation of the song. Eno was interested in flattening that triangle and having the various elements equally important... Or something along those lines. This was an important concept. Also melody - even complicated or non obvious melody that still had a "hook" quality - was always the first requisite in a song. There were many who wanted us to be Medeski Martin and Wood or to funk it out - but to us the lack of melody in the music of the day was a big motivation.

Dave McDonnell: I like your concept of the inside out group too, it really does sum us up. At the beginning we did have a beast of an instrument we called "crazy guitar" (one of Griffin's crafty projects) but it broke after the last show of our 1st U.S. tour (The Lounge Ax) and we never replaced it. I think now people are really used to going to a show and seeing the band just playing keyboards or horns and certainly just standing in front of a mixer and some laptops. Obviously earlier in the 20th century audiences didn't need to see a guitar on stage to think they were at a proper show. The legacy of 60s rock has has a lasting impact however.

Because of this, there was something about the 90s rock context as you say (which somehow we found ourselves in!) that really demanded a guitar. I remember this one show we did on tour where the sound guy was asking what our set up was so he knew how to mic us up:

"Okay, so drums, bass, keyboard and two vocal mics... and where's the guitar?"

I explained that we didn't have a guitar, and then told him more about the keyboard set up which also included my mixer.

"Okay, so drums, bass, keyboard, DI for your mixer and two vocal mics...and what about the guitar?" !!!

We seemed to encounter that a lot. Once again, I'm not trying to be all down on guitar, some of my favorite music is guitar based rock. Playing electric bass in a "rock" band, as I did later, was some of the most fun I've had. But there is kind of a mold there that if you go against, it makes it harder for people to understand what you are doing.

AC: On behalf of guitarists - mind you I'm not one either, particularly - no offence taken!

Tell me more about the process..

Griffin Rodriguez: I remember early on that we would mostly come up with song ideas as Dave described, there was also an element of improvisation and "studio composition" - assembling and building tunes while recording that was always and still is important to us all.

I was at conservatory for recording and I remember being fascinated by tape composition of modern composers such as Terry Riley/Steve Reich as well as Mingus, Miles and the Beatles' tape editing work.

All of the Bablicon records were recorded and edited mostly on tape and the recording aesthetic was a starting point for every idea we had.

Most of our material was written as Dave described - a single idea that was written on a certain instrument - but all of the records have tape edits and experiments of a mostly tape nature. Improvising and recording constantly would be where this material came from.

The opening piece on In A Different City is a kind of "tape piece" consisting of pieces of recordings from our loft rehearsals, and my bedroom studio at that place. We were always ready to record something and create material that might not have become a song but also material that we could cut up and use. We also injected some random found dance music (that was originally on the 1/4" reels we had found and we were recording over).

Dave McDonnell: I think you can break the compositional process and nature of Bablicon songs into different groups. I'll try and describe a few.

Whenever I think of Bablicon, especially about us coming up with songs, the first image I get in my mind is of the corner by the windows in the loft on Lake and Halsted where Griffin and Jeremy had all of their gear set up. I remember the first time I went over there I had my soprano saxophone with me and we did some jamming/improvising with me on that (this sax trio format became a thing we would do in the early days), but I kept enjoying the Fender Rhodes that was set up right next to the drums. Things were pretty loud and being able to crank up the gain on the Lab Series amp that the Rhodes was plugged into gave me a slightly distorted and very loud sound that allowed me to develop chords and riffs without having to work as hard physically if I'd just stuck with the saxophone. A great early example of this is a little jam we did for the Major Organ and the Adding Machine album, on one of the early tracks.

There were lots of different locations we got to rehearse in this format though. I think a great example of how we worked out songs in this way (me on keyboard) was when The Gerbils (I think it was Scott's house) were kind enough to let us practice at their space. I had this fast odd time signature riff (which later became Rhinoceros) and we were having trouble getting it to groove, so Griff suggested we play it at a half speed - at that tempo, with a few of the notes changed and Jeremy playing this flowing ride cymbal groove, it had this dreamy/stony quality to it which inspired me to come up with the spooky chord arpeggio and long vocal line. The rest of the tune was worked out in a similar way: someone would come up with a variant on the material we were working with at the time and that change would inspire more "instant composition". I guess you'd call that jamming, but I don't thnk we would have used that word at the time(!).

'Pigeon of Doom' was similar. We worked that out at Bill Doss's house (I think), I had come in with some riffs and a vocal melody, but the "shipwreck on the beach" calm part in the middle and the blast out, heavy riff at the end was worked out between the 3 of us. I remember I went out for a smoke break while Griff and Jeremy kept working out the heavy part. The person upstairs was watching a TV talk show and she had it up pretty loud (so she could hear it above all our noise I'd imagine) and as I sat out there the "bla bla bla" voices of the talk show blended in with the music and that's why you can hear this grumbling, grunting voice getting sonically pummeled at the end there.

Sometimes though, two of us would work out a song and then bring it to the 3rd person. I can remember Jeremy having lots of the piano riffs for An Odd Pear and him and I (on clarinet) working them into an arrangement in this old practice room building called The Beehive at Northwestern. Or being at Nigel's flat in Leicester and Griffin playing the bass line to 'Mary', while he sang/dictated his melodic ideas to me and I figured them out on this great keyboard called the Pianet T. I know there were lots of times when Griff and Jeremy had worked out a basic outline of a song and then would bring it to me for my input.

One other way we developed material was through improvising with our electronics set-ups. This is one of the biggest takeaways for me from Bablicon. I was into electronics and synthesizers before meeting those guys, but over the years that we worked together, in order to make a lot of the songs work live, I developed a pretty extensive electronics set up and all the work I did creating sounds with it gave me a pretty intuitive feel for that stuff and a confidence working with tech which honestly forms the basis for my career right now. As I remember it, we would often think up some kind of cinematic image or narrative and then improvise ambient "soundscapes" in an effort to evoke that image. These experiments enabled us to stumble into many new ideas for songs.

Jeremy Barnes: Yes indeed!

So to sum up our writing techniques-

We all wanted to experiment: together, alone, in pairs, or, after a song or piece of music had been "finished". Maybe it wasn't really finished and needed to be cut up or looped on a tape machine or inserted into a collage...Why write all of the songs on instruments we know how to play? Why not try to write a pop song? Or write a chamber piece... Sing! Or don't... There was no underlying concept to the band other than to experiment. I think that a lot of people at that time didn't really understand that. Why should the drummer be playing piano? Why should the saxophonist play the drums with his feet?

The one thing I would add is that we were all (sometimes subconsciously) looking for sounds and moments that were comedic, or joyful. A drum roll that was funny was often more exciting than any other drum roll. The same with a soprano sax solo, or a tape piece, or a wind ensemble. Griffin and I could listen over and over to a tape accident that sounded like a tiny seagull emerging from a giant vacuum.... And some of the most enjoyable parts of our early improvisations were when the excitement of playing overcame the ability to play, when things fell apart. I love to hear things fall apart. I think we all do. And I'm happy to say that our comedy wasnt ever snarky, or mean spirited.

I regard these albums as really joyful and fun to make, even though the situations we found ourselves in creating them were not always ideal. We could overcome uncomfortable circumstances because we were creating. It seems in hindsight, that we were always pressed for time, we were always broke, we were always working late into the night, everyone juggling a million other things and struggling to make time... I often think of the folly of youth- and how it compels us onward, and how it can lead to great mistakes but also some great moments.

For my part, I would say that my contributions to Bablicon include both. The band was a great launching point for the three of us. I think Bablicon should be considered a spring board from which we all leapt, not a graceful swan dive but not a belly flop either. Maybe a graceful belly flop. Or an awkward swan, falling backwards into the ocean. And to only listen to Bablicon is to only get the beginning, all of Griffin and Dave's efforts since then (and my own) are informed by our experiences in Bablicon, and I think we all keep it in mind when we are creating.

AC: All three of you mentioned "tape music" just now, which is an aspect of Bablicon's music I particularly like, and it's of special interest here at Navel-Gazers where the focus is all on sound recording. There are two pieces on "A Flat Inside A Fog..." - Arcdurvish and AEther - which are especially memorable for their tape sounds, so I wanted to ask about these... and can we also go further into the topic of how/whether this or that material could be performed live? So was 'Arcdurvish', for example, performable?

Dave McDonnell: 'Arcdurvish' started out as this singing drone sound that Jeremy had come up with, his electronics set up was a pick up mic plugged into this super crazy effects unit called the Alesis Wedge (Jeremy could confirm). There must have been a delay setting with super long feedback. We were really dorking out on Milford Graves at the time so I think his idea was to have the drone with a melody on top and then kinetic free jazz drums. We all worked out a melody together and played it live a few times using our samplers and electronics. Once it came time to record it we were able to really expand the piece...We did stuff like taking a solo I played at the end and then randomly cutting it up into bits and reassembling into a loop, layering little loops and even dragging tape over the tape heads. Griffin had his own digital sampler/effects thingy called the Zoom I think and you can hear it used there also.

Jeremy Barnes: 'Arcdurvish' actually began life as a live song. I do really enjoy this recorded version, Some of my favorite moments of our songs are where the tape sounds and acoustic sounds of the band are blurred together. In terms of drumming it was easy for me to hear the similarities between drummers like Sunny Murray, Hamid Drake and Han Bennink to my earlier influences of Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon. I appreciate the fact that Diminisher and Griffin allowed me to play freely. In my youth I really had very little desire to ever try to play "in the pocket". Even that term was annoying. I remember thinking of drums as waves hitting the shore. And I wanted more chaos, not less.

Dave McDonnell: We were also doing lots of cut up work with tape at the time. A big influence for me was going down to Athens and seeing the electronic music/cut up work that Will Hart and then especially this project that Jeff Mangum was working on called Korena Pang, I can't really understate the influence that had on me. Jeff had a "cutting edge" 8 track digital multi-tracker (laughable by today's standards) which was allowing him to do really detailed edits and loops. You have to remember that recording on a computer at this time was still fairly out of reach for most musicians. Anyways I bought a cheaper 4 track version of that and when combined with my tape machines allowed me to do lots of close edits and bouncing without building up tape hiss. It became much easier to put loops and tape edits into a full piece. I had a project studio set up in my apartment where I would work on this stuff when I wasn't doing Bablicon. We all ended up with little project studios like this in the end.

That's what 'AEther' came out of, I wrote a little etude for violin and piano which I recorded to tape and then manipulated and expanded it with a couple different tape machines (one that had to get up to speed every time you pressed play, which is where that sound on the track comes from) and digital 4 track and a Dr. Sample; kind of an analogue approach augmented by sampling and digital. I had just meant it as a side project, but when we were setting up the studio to record 'A Flat Inside A Fog...' I was playing some stuff over the speakers I had done while we had all been away for a while and Jeremy and Griffin said we should put it on the record.

AC: So just generally speaking would you say Bablicon was more of a live band, or more of a recording project?

Jeremy Barnes: We all love recording, but in some ways I feel that the band was best was playing live. One of my favorite songs from the third record is A Distant Morfonger, which is a live recording from a show in Detroit. Here's a little clip from a show in Hamburg, if you haven't seen it...

We were also very fortunate to be in Chicago at a time when there was a real push for free jazz. Griffin and I worked at a club called the Hothouse, Griff did sound and I was the janitor. I often had to pick up musicians at the airport. I had some wonderful conversations about improvisation at that time with people like William Parker, Cooper-Moore, LaDonna Smith, and Charles Gayle. I had no interest in the rock scene in Chicago, but the jazz scene was just on fire, and so many great musicians were coming through from all over. That was really inspiring. We were too weird and too young to be involved, but we were observing.

Griffin Rodriguez: Bablicon was always focused on live performance and especially live improvisation. The songs were the songs but getting to them was the art for us live. In this way certain songs would not be played because it seemed impossible to incorporate them into the kind of flowing-continuously improvised transitioning band. I think to a certain degree we followed the Hendrix advice of a record is a record and the show is another thing.

Dave McDonnell: Bablicon was definitely a live band whose raison d'etre was recording and studio experimentation; we'd attempt to translate the ideas we came up with in the studio into a live context. One of our solutions for this was to incorporate electronics into our onstage set ups. This allowed us to sound bigger than we actually were and produce more layers of sound when we played live as a trio.

For example, I started having other instruments I'd play live besides electric piano: saxophone and then a little electric organ and then "hey let's add your Theremin" and it was really at Griffin's urging that I started using a mixer placed on top of the electric piano that I could run all of these different instruments into so I wouldn't have to deal with a bunch of extra amps and mics. Once I got used to using the mixer, I started adding other devices, a sampler (the Dr. Sample(!) which allowed me to do live sampling and effects like delay and ring mod) a really nice Moog low pass filter and a nifty Roto Vibe pedal for the organ. I devised a way to play Theremin with one hand and play organ chords with the other. This might be too technical, but once Griff showed me how to use the Aux Send feature on the mixer I started running all of the different sounds I could make into different effects units and sometimes sampling and looping them and then effecting them again. Super fun!

Years later I was working up a lecture on Cluster and Harmonia for work and I saw pictures of the electronics set ups they were using when they were at Forst and realized we'd been operating in a similar vein.

AC: While we're on the individual tracks I can't forget to ask about my favourite track here - indeed one of my favourite album tracks, by any artist! - the awkwardly titled Saumur/Paris/Teatowels... Jeremy you talked about comedic and joyful sounds, and I thought of this one. This track seems to have everything: melody, rhythm, texture, depth, emotion, intrigue, tension, complexity, novelty, spontaneity... and energy, of the most extraordinary sort. Tell me about it!

Griffin Rodriguez: Polyrhythms were always a starting point for us and I think that continues today as well. Personally, growing up hearing the Talking Heads and Devo as well as Eno and Hendrix (my dad would play often after a day of painting) made me predisposed to polyrhythmic and rhythmic melody as found in the music of Africa, Jazz as well as Krautrock and hop hop. Also our fascination with Steve Reich and other minimalists reinforced those notions (Music For 18 Musicians). The strong melodic core of 'Tea Towels' couples with the flowing bed of rhythm in a characteristic Bablicon fashion. The end of An Orange Moon is a similar sensation I thnk. We found it powerful to have a slow moving melody over a relentless rhythm.

AC: 'An Orange Moon' and particularly the reprise is definitely the other one I'd think of here Griffin, another favourite!

Dave McDonnell: I really loved 'Tea Towels', you can hear some of Jeremy's field recording at the beginning there (he had this mini disk recorder that he carried around with him everywhere). That was mostly Jeremy's riffs and melodies although I had a blast doing those horn counterpoint/harmony arrangements at the end (got to use my oboe!), I'll leave it to Jeremy to set that one up a bit, but I do want to talk about Griffin's amazing bass part (it took him like 3 hours of trying things to get it down and Jeremy and I were privately talking about how he'd lost his mind but I'm not sure if he could have gotten it any other way!) and the great vocals we tried out but decided not to use "apple tree awaiting water..."

Jeremy Barnes: Regarding 'Tea Towels' - around the time of these recordings I had a little mini disc player with a stereo microphone, and I recorded as much as I could. I was traveling quite a bit and I filled many a disc with bird sounds, wind sounds, random people talking, and so on.

The idea of 'Tea Towels' was to create the feeling of travel, and the excitement of new places, in a kind of tape collage. I would love to go back and edit some of this, or to try again, but it is what it is! It's very strange to look back at things you did when you were young.

It was at this point in my life that I really wanted to leave the U.S., and was trying to figure out how to live in Europe. Meanwhile, the Diminisher was looking East, to China. On 'A Flat In The Fog...' you are hearing a band helping each other veer off into different directions, sometimes within the same composition. Maybe that's some of what you find interesting about the record. We all continued in those directions without each other after Bablicon, and I think these years together really helped all of us. At least I know it helped me.

On top of wanting to leave for Europe, I was completely sick of the sound of a drum kit. Hi hats. Snare drums. And so on. And honestly, I didn't want to play in a band anymore. I wanted to work some things out alone. It took a good many years for me to go back to playing drums, I really needed to do other things. For a bit I didn't even want to hear a drum kit playing a beat on record.

AC: Jeremy your diagnosis is correct, what always stuck with me about Bablicon - and especially this record - was that exploratory sensibility, the restless creativity bursting at the seams. Bablicon always went beyond stylistic eclecticism. There's an actual thrill of discovery in this music, the kind which inevitably leads on to the next thing. I took a similar path in my own life, emigrating from America, traveling around the world... it seems fitting that I've still got Bablicon on rotation here. Maybe it's music for explorers! So do you still have all those mini disc recordings you made on your travels? What have you typically done with them?

Jeremy Barnes: I do have a pile of mini discs in my closet, along with old DAT tapes and VCR recordings... I haven't used those mini disc sounds in years but I think there are some Babl live shows in there, and some collaborations we did with Volcano The Bear. I think the longer I let them sit in the closet the better they will sound when I play them again.

I remember a couple of years after the Bablicon era, and I was in Chicago for a spell and back to driving around with Griff. He had some kind of digital recorder and was writing melodies for Icy Demons while he was driving. And certainly the Diminisher always had a cassette recorder or something with him. The orchestra piece on the first record was recorded on a handheld cassette. I love that.

AC: Right, the enigmatic *;!:-!

Dave McDonnell: '*;!:-'... that was the first orchestra piece I'd written and the orchestra was only going to sight read it for 20min. I had to figure out how to write something that could be playable in that amount of time but still sounded cool. I had gotten into the habit of recording every moment of music making with my handheld cassette recorder, which I took everywhere with me in my bag. The orchestra rehearsed it in a nice big concert hall and I just walked up and put the handheld directly behind the conductor, it's amazing how good it turned out, something about the natural tape compression and the hiss...

AC: ...yeah that's no ordinary recording!

Well it's time to start wrapping up here. I really have to thank you all for your generosity in doing this interview - in fact I've had Bablicon in the back of my mind ever since this project first began. Actually you'd find this interesting: I first discovered Bablicon through your interview years ago on Perfect Sound Forever which is a website I used to frequent in the early 2000s. When I was first designing Navel-Gazers I think the whole thing was sort of a subconscious homage to Perfect Sound Forever although when I look now, the similarities such as the black background and the pastel fonts are pretty superficial! I don't know if you guys remember doing that interview but for me this is almost like going full circle.

Griffin Rodriguez: So excellent to hear of this backstory to the interview! I have the worst memory (at least for dates and events) so it's wonderful to read we've all come full circle in this interview.

Jeremy Barnes: Perfect Sound Forever was a great music website!

AC: Right? I discovered so much music there...

Throughout our discussion you've all frequently mentioned your other music which grew out of Bablicon. What are you most proud of that we should be checking out and is anyone working on anything currently? Are you artists for life? Will Bablicon ever... reconvene?

Griffin Rodriguez: Certainly yes, we all three have kept busy musically since the Bablicon era.

As was alluded to earlier, I focused on a few different projects once it looked like Bablicon would be slowing down.

In the year 2000 I joined two Chicago groups led by respected musicians in the Chicago indie constellation - HiM (Doug Scharin) and Orso (Phil Spirito). Also I had the first sessions for my group Icy Demons when Christopher Powell (from a group Bablicon influenced - Bent Leg Fatima which had become Need New Body) and David Moylan (from another Philadelphia group Sola) came to my studio the Shape Shoppe (which was still the Truckstop at that point). The group HiM was rehearsing that summer (almost every day) for a six week long tour and I would record Icy Demons tracks at night. I was also playing with a Jazz/improv based group called The Exciting Trio. I went on to tour and record with Icy Demons for three albums and 10 years. In 2006(?) I started working with (recording/producing) the group Beirut which Jeremy had helped propel to fame. In 2007 Christopher Powell and I started a record label called Obey Your Brain. I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 and continued the group there. I moved to Tuscany 4 years ago and have continued the group here with new musicians. I've released much material on Bandcamp since I've been here. I have a new track recorded with the Italian group that I'm working on now.

In 2004 David and I took a road trip to Albuquerque to record new Bablicon material. We started some tracks with the idea of finishing them like I was finishing tracks with Icy Demons remotely. They remain unfinished, but the seed is there for some future activity. Who knows? or in Italian...chi sa? Che sarà sarà.

I'm doing a bit of teaching (recording/engineering) myself these days. Both at an independent music school my wife Silvia Bolognesi (an incredible upright bass player) set up and also remotely with some of my clients. I am busy with recording and mixing - even here in Italy in these Covid times - as I have been since Chicago (thank the lord). I also have done a lot of live/touring sound through the years and recently have worked with the Art Ensemble of Chicago both in America and Europe.

I would say all three of us, no matter what are artists for life.

Jeremy Barnes: We've all kept pretty busy since the Babl days. I moved to France and started A Hawk and A Hacksaw, first as a solo project. I then moved to England and played with the band Broadcast for a bit, along with doing solo shows as AHAAH. I headed home to New Mexico (the best move I've ever made) in 2003, and met Heather Trost, who joined AHAAH. We did a lot of touring/recording and collaborating with musicians in Eastern Europe.We received a grant in 2006 to expand our band and tour the UK, and on the back of that, we moved to Budapest for 2 years. Around that time we helped get the band Beirut signed and played on their first record. We started a little label in 2010 and have released music from Turkey, Romania, Kentucky, and elsewhere along with our own records. We kept touring. Spent a lot of time in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. Sometime in there Neutral Milk Hotel started playing again, which was like a three year eclipse of everything else. I was on the road or preparing to go on the road all the time. I put out a record with John Dieterich from Deerhoof in 2014 or so, called Dieterich & Barnes. AHAAH toured cinemas in Europe playing the soundtrack to a wonderful Ukrainian film called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. We recorded an old sea shanty with Iggy Pop. We played on a Swans record. We recorded a Heather Trost solo record in 2016, and she signed to Third Man for her second record, which came out last fall. I produced it, played drums, bass and keyboards, and we wrote a lot of the songs together. We're working on a third Trost album right now.

I'm currently trying to put together a full length LP of songs to listen to while committing bank robbery. I teach recording and songwriting to incarcerated youth and teens experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque, as well as teaching music to the local youth refugee population, who are from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and The Congo.

Griffin Rodriguez: I want to hear the music to listen to while robbing a bank!

AC: Same here! Diminisher?

Dave McDonnell: Well after "Fog..." I think Bablicon was losing momentum as our ideas about what to do musically diverged more and more. By the time I got back from China I think we had talked about working on something new but kept putting it off. I'd be open to trying something again, we've had some success with reunions in the past....

There was a ton of really great music happening in Chicago upon my return and I just dove in feet first. I did a lot of work as a side man, playing keyboards and sax and electronics. Griffin's group Icy Demons, as well as Orso had a big impact on how I conceptualized making music; the kinds of forms and riffs you could spin out and work with. It was really great for me to work in an environment like this and gradually learn how to take an idea that the band leader had and do what I could do to make it sound better, not necessarily change it. Being part of a "rhythm section" and not out in front of a group also got me really into having tight time as well, and I took my inspiration on that from groups like Neu! and Can (and later Harmonia). Mine and Griffin's whole music scene was based out of the loft rehearsal/studio space just south of the Loop we called Shape Shoppe.

Another group I was deeply involved in was Dylan Ryan's Herculaneum, where I played alto sax and did some writing, this was a "jazz" group that rehearsed and played live constantly. It was a 4 horn front line with bass and drums (no chords), I got to do a lot of intricate horn writing and free wheeling soloing. We did a number of great albums and east coast tours, I count Herc as a high point.

My own project that took the most direct line from Bablicon was a duo (then later a trio) with Dylan called Michael Columbia. All of the mixers on stage, live sampling, loops and synths and playing multiple instruments at the same time carried on with that group. We did a few albums and toured like crazy. We later worked as a trio with Chris Kalis (from the Chandeliers) which made my job a little easier. I think of that group fondly.

I kept playing jazz on my own too, fronting and writing for a group called The Hats.

Also, it took 3 years of on-and-off work at Shape Shoppe, but I finished up a solo album as "the diminisher" called Imaginary Volcano that came out in 2006, kind of my homage to The Zombies and The Kinks. I really enjoyed the style of writing I was developing for that project and had started on a 2nd album, but once I started graduate school, it faded away...

I decided to go back to school in my early 30's. I felt that there were ideas and instincts I had about moving my work forward which couldn't be addressed in the situation I was in. Plus if I could eventually land a teaching gig, I might have some stability. So I ended up getting a doctorate in composition and computer music, getting married, having two wonderful, bright, girls. I began teaching as an adjunct professor, music theory, orchestration, saxophone, recording, electronic music...., at a number of colleges in the Cincinatti Metro area.

Somehow during this time I was able to start a new project called Dave McDonnell Group which did 3 albums, one most notably on Chicago's Delmark Records, thus fulfilling one of my childhood dreams(!),

My family and I ended up in Philly just the other year where I have a full time gig as a professor of music technology at Temple University. I feel that the years I spent with Bablicon and after with all the different groups and projects/studio work contributes to my teaching practice just as much if not more than my degree. I'm doing lots of computer music coding now which I layer with my saxophone and vocals, I've nearly finished an album for my "newish" 5th World project: I have to figure out some way to put it out...

I was reading 'James And The Giant Peach' to my 5 year old the other night and I came upon this phrase, I thought it summed up Bablicon nicely:

"But the travellers lived on."

AC: What a nice thought Dave. It's the right note to end on. Thank you Bablicon for the chat, and for the music!

Bablicon can be found at Pickled Egg Records and on Bandcamp at Misra Records, along with Griffin's individual page and Jeremy's label, Living Music Duplication. Dave has a website,

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