Back in 1999, the Seattle trio Radio Chongquing released a self-titled album of rarefied beauty and grace. It forged intricate tapestries of eerie, otherworldly atmospheres and abounded with exotic percussive timbres and exquisitely wrought trumpet calligraphy. The handiwork of trumpeter Lesli Dalaba, drummer Greg Gilmore, and stick player George Soler, Radio Chongqing was a lost treasure, an anomalous slice of hard-to-classify fusion dreamscaping—until March 2015, when Taiwan's Super Invincible Records reissued it on vinyl in somewhat abbreviated form (the original CD boasted 11 tracks; the vinyl has seven). I talked to Dalaba (now an acupuncturist) and Gilmore (who still works in audio engineering at the Fort Studio) about this hypnotic and spiritual record and the unexpected way it looped back into their lives.
I hadn’t heard Radio Chongqing before and I’m glad a label has reissued it. It really took me by surprise. How did this reissue come about? Was it through George Soler’s connections in Taiwan?
Lesli Dalaba: I suspect it was through George Soler, period. He’s kind of disappeared in a personal way, so I can’t confirm that. He’s still in Taiwan, to the best of my knowledge. It’s been 15 years since we’ve been in touch. If you want to hear an amazing coincidence, I just ran into Greg [Gilmore] for the first time in 12 years. He was playing a gig at the SeaMonster. I live in the ’hood; that’s our local hangout. I’d been thinking about Radio Chongqing. I just want to be able to give away the music, so it can be heard. It wasn’t online or anything. We talked about that and decided to put it up on Bandcamp for free downloads. Of course, we weren’t sure about George… So, we posted it, and that week, we both went home and found this box on our front porch with ten copies of this reissue. We hadn’t heard from George at all. We had no idea a vinyl reissue was in the works. I just want Radio Chongqing heard. It seems like a better time now than 15 years ago.
I had just pulled out all the old tapes and cassettes, the Sonarchy shows and stuff, and was going to do some listening with Greg. And a week later we found those records on our porches. [laughs]
The original CD had 11 tracks; the reissue has 7. I was going to ask you how did you decide which songs to trim, but apparently you weren’t even involved in the decision.
Dalaba: No. When Greg saw the LP, he thought it was an obvious selection and George did what he should have done in making them. The label [Super Invincible] hopes to put another one out in a year or so with the rest of Radio Chongqing and some previously unreleased material. My favorite has not been put on yet. It’s kind of a wild one.
It seems like the most heavily percussive ones were excised. I wish the whole thing could’ve been re-released on double vinyl, but maybe that was too expensive to do.
Dalaba: I think you’re right. A couple of them probably won’t go on; they’re just passing, interlude things. I’m not sure.
Can you describe the atmosphere of the studio when you recorded Radio Chongqing, and the mindsets of the players? maybe what words were exchanged before sounds went to tape? I know it was improvised, but did you lay out any general parameters before you picked up your instruments?
Dalaba: On one track, “On Fire,” we each picked a note. We did the whole album in a weekend. It was all completely improvised. I was in an isolation booth, but I could see them.
How long had you been playing as a trio before you cut this record?
Dalaba: We decided to try playing as a trio when we were on a month-long tour in China in 1996 with a band called Land, which was led by Jeff Greinke. That’s when they told me to grab my JamMan. [laughs] I started messing around with it and they said, you really need two. They’re pretty vintage now. It was a rack-mount looping device. It came with 12 seconds and you could upgrade it to 30. It took up a whole space on a rack and you could either get a sample on it or a loop, with a few choices. It’s about 1/10,000th of what you can get now with a foot pedal.
Was there much post-production work done to it or is what we hear the way things happened in real time?
Dalaba: It’s definitely all real time, except for a couple of spaces when the rhythm drops out or something. I did rescue one song I liked that they didn’t think would work. I think it came out really well when we all worked on it together.
Does your occupation as an acupuncturist influence your music?
Dalaba: No. Maybe the other way around.
Do you have a thriving practice?
Dalaba: Maybe you could help me with that. [laughs] Treetop Acupuncture—discounts for musicians always! My life went into mid-life turnaround a few years ago. We had to move our old beautiful practice in Capitol Hill because of the light rail construction. So I moved the practice into my house and cut way back to part time, got a nice little clinic in my attic in Wallingford.
Are you playing in any bands now or solo?
Dalaba: That would be nice, too. I quit playing for a couple years after my parents died. But I picked it up and again and I’m feeling kind of itchy and ready to go, but I’m not sure what to do. The Yellow Hat Band was a big street band I formed in 2004. That went for six or seven years and helped start the Honk! Fest West. It was something completely different—a big brass band on the street. It was fun, but I want to go back to a more creative [situation], but I’m just not sure what or how.
It seems like you’d be in demand, given your past. You have quite a track record, playing with major musicians.
Dalaba: Old white ladies who play trumpet aren’t that much in demand. I’d love to play with DJs, actually. If you know anybody who you’d think would be a good fit, tell ’em. I feel like I’m in good shape and kinda just twitching around not knowing what to do.
Who would you say are your influences?
Dalaba: In a twisted way, a very strong influence on my life was Eugene Chadbourne. A bunch of guitarists, actually: Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey… And then I started playing more melodically with Land. The pieces were usually very simple in structure and I felt like messing em up a bit.
There’s something almost ritualistic about Radio Chongqing. It has an otherworldly feel to it. That’s what made me think of Jon Hassell.
Dalaba: Of course I’ve heard his name. As soon as someone would say, “You sound like so and so,” I would intentionally never listen to that person. So I couldn’t but help little smidgens of Hassell’s music. But it’s not something I would listen to. I get influenced from off-the-wall things—nothing so direct as another trumpet player.
Did Radio Chongqing have a general outline or an inkling of what was going to happen or was it pure spontaneity?
Greg Gilmore: We never had an outline for anything, whether it was a gig or a recording. It was all improvised. Everything happened on the spot. We just played; it was just about making that sound. There were no set pieces, no shapes, no concepts, nothing. What ended up on the record has more shape than the straight improvisations did, because we recorded for a couple of days and then went back and found the sections, the 5,10, 15 minutes where something is taking shape, where there’s something happening. Then we would overdub onto that—still just improvising to it. When you do that now you’re starting to create a shape on the fly. Then when it’s mixed, there’s editing, basically by the mute button—not the kind of editing we can do today. When you record like that, there’s always going to be more information than you need. So you end up taking stuff away. That’s how you create dynamics and sections by taking something out and bringing it back, or bringing it back and taking a different thing out. We just played.
The re-emergence of Radio Chongqing is a remarkable coincidence, it sounds like.
Gilmore: Lesli and I had not been in touch for quite some time… years. In November I was playing at SeaMonster. Fred Chalenor, who replaced George for a while at the end of the band’s life, called me a week or so after we got those records from George. Everything came back around all at one time. It’s wild.
Are you still heavily involved with music?
Gilmore: Yeah. I’ve not been playing out so much for quite a while, but planning to this year. I do a lot of recording and engineering. The Fort Studio.
Looking back on Radio Chongqing 16 years on, how do you feel about it? Have you been listening to it?
Gilmore: I have been. It sounds as good to me and as timely as ever—or timeless. I think it’s really good.
Would you and Lesli ever have a desire to reunite and make a go of it in that vein, or is it destined to remain in the past?
Gilmore: The idea came up briefly. That’s a tough one. It was a thing that happened. I couldn’t do it again without adding some new twist. I have been recently doing that looping stuff. That’s been pretty cool. I got away from it for a long time. I’ll be doing something with it soon but I don’t know what exactly.