Up this week is Gayle Ellet from grand old instrumental prog band Djam Karet. As you’ll see Gayle is a seasoned prog veteran (this is the oldest band I’ve interviewed for the site so far), and he’s got a unique perspective on what it means to “make it” as an indie prog artist.
Ben Sommer: Hi, this is Ben Sommer with BandsLikeRush.com. I’m here with Gayle Ellett from the band… you’ve got to help me with this. I don’t know what to…
Gayle Ellett: I pronounce it as Djam Karet.
Ben: Got it. I saw the phonetic spelling in your Wikipedia entry and it’s Djam Karet. Okay, I got it. It’s great.
Ben: Anyway, Gayle is a kind of impresario of this long-running prog band that has been around for quite sometime and I’m excited to talk to him for a few minutes for the site. Gayle, for those fools who have never heard of your band or yourself, won’t you give us just a brief intro what you are about.
Gayle: Sure, our group, Djam Karet, was formed about 26 years ago in 1984 and we had 15 CDs out so far and we sort of play progressive music. We play such a blended style and so sometimes the music is either jazzy or metal or electronic and we pull some different veins. In the early years, all what we did was totally improvised music with no preplanned structure in any of our rehearsals or gigs and we did that for years, and then slowly we started adding more structure. As you can tell from listening to our music, we have a big focus on trying to make the ensemble sound and not be to just to set our instruments and rip solos over. We just are inspired by the music of our teenage years that we listened to, but we don’t want to be copies of them, but we are obviously influenced by Pink Floyd and King Crimson and also rock groups like the Allman Brothers and standard and jazz fusion groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and electronic music with Tangerine Dream. So that’s kind of what we’ve done.
Ben: Yeah, definitely, when you said the word “ensemble” here for sure and some of the reviews I’ve read, they have that ensemble sound, and I confirmed it with my ears that it sounded like you record everything live as a group, even in the studio. Is that true?
Gayle: Only on the record they have the full sections that we record everything live in the studio. Almost with all of our albums before are really all done one track at a time with the drums first and then other instruments. So we do it so much and we do, I hope, well that it sounds very like we are all playing together, but it’s almost always one track at a time, even hopefully it doesn’t come across that way.
Ben: Wow – in your older stuff it sounded like everyone was locked in, but not to a metronome. How does that work? Is the guitar first?
Gayle: We never use the metronome, but we will usually record the drums first and then what we will do is everyone in the room will play our instruments, just in the headphones so that the drummer can hear us playing along with him but no sounds bleeds into his drums.
Gayle: What we record is just a scratch track of all of us with grubby tone, just plugged into and blended together onto another track so, and the drums are free to speed up or slow down over time. We don’t care about if the tempo is creeping up a little faster over time. You know we don’t. It’s just – we are trying to have it played by hand kind of feel and not an ugly technical feel.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, well, if you were to simulate a live band, the recorded sound, that will be the way to do it.
Gayle: Absolutely, and I think in the future, we are going to try to do more bass drums and maybe guitar at the same time because it did work out really well in our most recent CD where we all play at the same time and we had ended up doing the overdubs on this particular record. Because we actually do overdubs since I play a guitar and keyboards, but I can’t play them both at the same time, obviously.
Ben: Right, yeah. That’s always a trick.
Ben: So when you were throwing out some similarity, your influences, you threw some names that are telling. The one thing, the non-Western element that in a lot of music and is quoted in a lot of the reviews with things like where I don’t hear a lot of odd meters which sometimes you hear in certain non-Western folk music, but the non-Western modes you use a lot with different types of scales. Where did that come from?
Gayle: Yeah, we do play a lot in 7/4 and other rhythms, but we play them sometimes so fluidly that it doesn’t sounds like they are odd rhythms. But one of our bass players, Aaron writes a lot in the other modes besides the major Ionian and Aeolian modes that normal Western likes to assume. But I also I write a lot of traditional world music for my day job, which is to do music for TV shows and film projects and so in that way I have spent a couple of decades studying a ton of world music as part of my main job of writing music at home for that kind of thing, and also the rest of the people in the band listen to a lot of traditional folk CDs around the world, in general, because we like listening to Polynesian music and South American music and Eastern European music. So there is so much of that stuff that creeps in and influences our style so much.
Ben: Right, right. Yeah, when I said meters, I do hear odd meters, but it’s not math rock where you are switching around and being avant garde about it. There is a lot of non-Western music that have odd meters that stick to them and so they are just kind of like part of a dance sequence if you will. That’s what I hear here.
Gayle: Well, one thing, you know, in many ways we are trying hard to make music that, on the one hand is fairly complicated or very complicated, but on the other hand it’s still flowing and grooving and so we are trying to not get that effect of that math rock thing where it’s just tedious. We are trying to balance flow with complexity and simple with complex parts and solo and melody and juggle all those things and keep them kind of under control but all still very vibrant at the same time.
Ben: I want to hear about your day job. I interviewed another fellow from the LA area for BandsLikeRush’s sister site, BandsLikeZappa.com. He’s a commercial jingle writer, but actually a reality show scorewriter.
Ben: It’s his day job and it sounds like you’ve got a ton of credits and experience in that realm. How does that start?
Gayle: It started about 20 years ago when my friend’s brother became a TV producer, an assistant TV producer on ESPN and they needed some instrumental music for some surfing shows and so we submitted some stuff and they liked it and then they said, “Oh well, now, we’ve got a skiing show in the Andes and we need Peruvian folk music. Can you do that?” And I said, “Well, I listen to that stuff all the time and I’ve got tons of those instruments here and I play a gazillion of instruments anyway. Give me a few days and I will send something in.” And I did and they liked it and I thought, “Well, this is doable.” And if you listen to a certain style in music like Balinese music and that Peruvian and I thought I can make it unique which couldn’t take weeks or months then you write new compositions in those styles and also some of these songs within public domain. For example, with Traditional Chinese songs, you can do covers of them.
Ben: Oh, good. Yeah, that helps.
Gayle: Yeah, so sometimes I do covers and stuff and sometimes I write original music and put it out on libraries and directly put it into shows and film projects and it’s a struggle for anybody. It’s hard.
Ben: Yeah, I know.
Gayle: But you get to work at home, which I love, and that’s awesome.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So the band is so old and if you look it, you know you started from cassette tapes just like I did when I was in high school we recorded in the garage. I’m just curious because I’m a musician. A lot of the people listening to the podcast are musicians. Throughout the years, what has been the mission or strategy for this band? Has it shifted? Did you go through a period where you tried to make it either big or make it a sustainable career? Where does the band fit in with this day job you are doing now and in the past?
Gayle: Well, we’ve been really lucky in that. We’ve always been motivated to play totally self-indulgent music without any concern for its popularity or salability or anything. Especially when you start off playing totally improvised music for years, you are not trying to make accessible music, but you are trying to play music at a higher level and learn and get better at it. It’s just that early on we put out the cassette and the CD and enough sold that it supported to pay for itself and funded the making of another one. So if people didn’t buy our CD, we would still get together and record, but it just wouldn’t get released. So we’ve been really lucky that our goal has never been to be successful and popular and so far it worked terrific. If we want to be more popular, we would have shorter songs. We aspired to be a certain kind of band.
Gayle: A bank like King Crimson or Pink Floyd or Yes. That was a visionary band with lofty visionary goals and we try to work a lot on with theme & variations – compositions and arrangements – and pursuing those goals is very rewarding and I just had no interest in trying to play pop music and I never listen to it. Almost all my CDs are instrumental.
Ben: Yeah, I noticed.
Gayle: Most people don’t listen to instrumental music at all.
Ben: It’s true, except as background and that’s your day job.
Ben: So that fits perfectly.
Gayle: Yeah, sure. Right.
Ben: Well, at least, did you have a new CD or do you have any events or gigs coming up you want to plug, your website, if nothing else?
Gayle: Now, we have our website, djamkaret.com, and we hardly ever gig so we have no gigs you find in the future, but we’ll work on another record soon and I just like to encourage all the musicians that are listening to pursue recording more. Get your own home studio and get working at it and it will you if you get pro tools and after you made three or four records, you will start to get good at it. I mean, it takes a long time to learn but it’s learnable and I just say record.
Gayle: Why play live? Why play live? It doesn’t get you anywhere.
Ben: Just do it right. Well, great. This has been great talking to you, Gayle. Thanks for your time.
Gayle: I absolutely appreciate it. Let’s talk more sometime.