Jherek Bischoff Gets By with a Little Help from His Friends
The closest Jherek Bischoff says he's ever come to "feeling like a Beatle" was on a remote island off the Panama coast inhabited by a pre-Columbian people called the Kuna. Bischoff was a teenager at the time and in the middle of a three-year round-the-world sailing trip with his family. (Bischoff grew up on a boat.) He, his dad, and his brother had brought musical instruments for the voyage, but the boat was too small for them to set up and practice together. So whenever the family made landfall, they would ask around for local musicians they could play with.
When the Bischoff boys showed up on one of the San Blas islands and inquired about playing, they were taken to the local Kuna chief. He told them they could play in the town square that evening. The San Blas islands—an archipelago that includes some islands so small they have a single palm tree—were a striking place, Bischoff said last week while we sat in his instrument-packed apartment. "Huts with dirt floors, no running water, people wearing bones through their noses."
That night, they brought their gear ashore and set up in the dark. Someone wandered off to turn on a generator. A light came on, and the Americans heard a sudden roar—an army of clamoring children swarmed right up in their faces and were so jammed against their instruments that it was tricky just to play. The island had been equipped with a hospital a few years back, Bischoff explained, so the infant mortality rate took a nosedive and there was a baby boom. The kids had never heard rock 'n' roll before, Bischoff said, and flipped out when they started playing. They didn't know how to dance to rock music exactly (most of the music in the San Blas islands was reserved for religious occasions), but they loved it, and the Bischoffs became instant celebrities. The Kuna are also some of the shortest people in the world, supposedly second only to the Pygmies of Africa; the Bischoffs are all more than six feet tall. "So the next few days when we'd walk through town," Bischoff said, "we had kids hanging off each limb. It was wild."
The family eventually returned to their home port of Bainbridge Island, where Bischoff continued to learn a huge variety of instruments: saxophone led to the clarinet; tuba led to the trombone and trumpet; electric bass led to the guitar, ukulele, and banjo; stand-up bass led to the cello and violin; and so on. Bischoff had plenty of encouragement. His dad, who studied at UC Davis with John Cage, had been in a psychedelic-noise band called Amra/Arma—two drummers and homemade synthesizers, including one built into a globular old diving helmet that the drummers could play with their tongues. (The other band member was Stan Lunetta, whose synth designs are being rediscovered by DIY music geeks.) "They'd do crazy shit, dress up in loincloths," Bischoff said of Amra/Arma. They'd try, through their shows, to "summon the essence of Conan."
"Conan"? As in Conan the Barbarian?
It was tongue-in-cheek, right?
"No! They were serious. They swear they summoned a Conan scene one time, with people in fur and lions walking around and stuff... So, yeah. I come from some weirdness for sure."
Bischoff has made plenty of his own weirdness over the past few years, working with a litany of high-caliber bands and performance groups. He tends to gravitate toward projects that are both virtuosic and visceral, and share a theatrical, avant-dandy flair.
In 2010, I described Xiu Xiu, one of the many bands Bischoff has worked with, as "pretty with a hint of menace; there are blades hiding beneath all that gossamer." That description could extend to many of Bischoff's collaborators: Parenthetical Girls, Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls), Degenerate Art Ensemble, Implied Violence, the Dead Bird Movement dance company. He's also worked with Los Campesinos, Yacht, Jason Webley, and, most recently, David Byrne, who appears on Bischoff's new record, Composed.
Four years in the making, Composed is an orchestral record with celebrity guests including Byrne, Mirah Zeitlyn, Nels Cline of Wilco, and the Brazilian Tropicalismo pioneer Caetano Veloso. The result is a rewardingly varied, sometimes jagged, sometimes almost poppy record that uses very few rock or pop instruments.
Bischoff started writing Composed after his previous band, the Dead Science, released their final record, Villainaire. That was a bittersweet experience, Bischoff said. He'd started the band with high-school friend Sam Mickens—Bischoff got a GED—after they'd bonded over a shared musical ravenousness that took them from Tom Waits to John Zorn and beyond. "Our goal was to take influences and combine them in a way that you couldn't tell what the influences were," Bischoff said. After years of hard work and hard touring, they felt like Villainaire had achieved something: "We'd finally succeeded in making a record that didn't sound like anything else, that sounded like what we were hearing in our heads." He laughed ruefully. "But nobody else gave a shit!"
While the Dead Science often felt like a youthful uphill struggle—a good struggle, Bischoff hastened to add, and an experience he's profoundly grateful for—Composed has felt strangely easy, especially in the past year. His connection with David Byrne, for example, came through a mutual friend. Bischoff sent Byrne a track—a joyfully majestic song titled "Eyes" that wouldn't sound out of place on any of Byrne's recent records—and he almost immediately agreed to sing on it. Bischoff couldn't believe his luck.
In the past year, he's played dream gigs with dream collaborators at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and a world tour opening for Amanda Palmer and playing with her band. (That tour, it should be mentioned, kicked off an internet shitstorm when Palmer, who had raised more than $1 million from Kickstarter in May, crowdsourced volunteer musicians from her fan base to sit in on some of the shows. Twitter exploded, musicians and their unions called her out, and Palmer agreed to pay—including retroactively—all the guest musicians. Bischoff said the controversy was mostly a misunderstanding, as the online indignation evolved more quickly than the tour's internal logistics. But he also said the controversy was "awesome" because he hadn't seen his community make so much noise about musicians' rights before.)
For his upcoming show at the Moore, he'll play with some old collaborators (Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls, Jason Webley) and newer ones, including Rosa Danilova, aka Zola Jesus. He's especially excited to arrange one of her electronic-based songs using only orchestral instruments. "I don't want her to bring in beats and add orchestra," he said, "but to create it all within the orchestra. One thing I want to avoid is using orchestral arrangements of rock songs like just a rock band with a little extra sauce. I want the orchestra to be the band."
This fluidity in Bischoff's thinking between orchestra and band is another change in the past year, especially in his relationship with the audience. He said he's usually shy onstage, more of the traditional symphony attitude, not really one for singing or banter. But he's recently learned—partially by becoming more comfortable and partially by watching Webley, Palmer, and others who know how to cultivate a relationship with a crowd—about opening up to his audience instead of just playing at them.
"With orchestral music, it's still a huge thing lacking in that world," he said. "It's like 'This is our tradition, this is our thing, we're really fucking good at it, so we're going to set up and play at you.' But now I'm approaching orchestras like a band—like a really big band I've organized. We make eye contact, smile, play for people. The chemistry of a rock band, with three or four people onstage pushing out that energy, can be a beautiful thing," he said. "But get 40 people onstage with that chemistry, and it could be—it could be Conan!"