Tom Furgas Interview (1999)

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by Mark Kissinger

What's the first thing that got you really interested in music?

You mean way back?

Yeah, whenever that moment was when you realized that this was what you wanted to do

It was sort of what I think most people are hit with: "Hey, I can do that." This kind of realization. When you're little, any music has a kind of magical quality to it, no matter what it is, and the idea that you can make that kind of magic yourself... I just knew that I wanted to do that. It was like "Hey, this is for me!"

Do you remember how old you were at the time? Were you listening to something in particular when this realization was hit?

Yeah, I was in Kindergarten.. the teacher was playing piano and we were singing little songs and I like watching her operate this big instrument and I said, "That looks fun."

So what did you do, go home and tell your parents?

Well, they knew I wanted to take piano lessons 'cause they would see me... I would open a storybook up like it was sheet music and pretend I was playing on the table like it was a piano.

Do remember what music you listened to when you were real little?

My parents had a bunch of 78's dating from WWII and when I was five I wanted a record player for Christmas. I mean, that's all I wanted. And they got me one; a very nice little Capitol record player, red and white... it was beautiful. And after I got that, they got out all these 78's that they had stashed in the attic and I went crazy with them. And swing music was the first really big... that was before I discovered the radio and the Beatles and everything that came after that.

What does music mean to you? What is it? What kind of effect does it have on you?

It's sort of a way of organizing chaos in the world, kind of bringing it into us.

How so?

Well, of course, when you create music, composing or performing it, it's sort of as though you're grabbing these sounds out of this continuum of sound that's all around you and molding it into specific shapes....

And thereby bringing order out of chaos?

Yes... it's not a way of controlling it but rather of selecting a bit of it and..not making it your own.... what is it I want to say?

Do you think we tend to just grab those sounds that are our own?

Well, let's say that no one could make music without having heard music previously, otherwise what would the result be? You'd probably just have a chaotic jumble. So, I mean, you're influenced by everything you hear, if you're a musician, and it's a way of reaching out and grabbing that particular group of sounds. But you know, of course, every musician has their own way of ordering that for them, just like a signature, so no two people are gonna make music at all similar.

Unless you're signed to Columbia Records, .... then maybe ...

Well, that's up to the producers, of course, and the sound engineers and the hair stylists.

Who or what would you say has been you're main influence in your composing?

One of the biggest, of course was Frank Zappa, and that goes back to when I first heard him when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was like... you could do all sorts of ingenious and off-the-wall things and get away with it, or make it something really viable and useful. Through him I got into, uh.... I had always been... let's just say that before that I had always been into classical music and he used elements of that and he used a lot of different things, but he showed that you could use just about any influence, any style, and bring your own little zing to it. He was a big influence when I was just starting to write, just starting to play around with it seriously, as far as composing goes.

Any other influences?

Eno, he's another. What he did is brought the "non-musician" angle into it; He himself is an admitted non-musician. And he showed that you didn't have to be particularly well-skilled in an instrument in order to... you know, there are other ways of making and shaping sounds than just virtuosic finger-play and so forth. He brought a sort of naive, untutored approach that I thought was refreshing and it sort of made me want to limit, to a certain extent, the degree of schooling that I would have in it, 'cause I wanted to keep it fresh and I knew that if I got too deeply into it, it would be like... discovering how the magician did all his tricks or something. It would lose that potency for me.

Anything else?

All of the classical masters definitely have something worth studying and deriving things from, if not directly imitating what they do then, just the mastery of the materials. I mean, of course this goes against what I just said about Eno, so it's always been kind of back-and-forth with me, wanting to keep it naive and untutored on the one hand and trying to master the materials on the other (laughs)... sort of a friction right there I've maintained, I guess. There are times when I deliberately do things that are incorrect, I guess you would say, just to see if I can't discover something that has been missed somewhere.

Out of all the recordings you've done do you have any particular favorites?

"The Son of the Mayor of Rain"

Why that one?

It seemed to gel a lot of ideas that I was working up to at that point. I mean, I like to put out tapes and have a wide variety of ideas on them, and that seemed to have the widest variety and have each one individually be successful within itself as well. The pacing of it, the variety of sounds that I used on it, the whole package. It seemed to be as close to what I'd been aiming at, in that particular style anyway, which would be like pop/rock, I suppose. It just seemed to gel real well when I made it. I mean, I made it very quickly and I didn't eliminate anything I was working on at the time because everything came out so well when I was doing it. I just happened to be particularly well-inspired at that point, which I would say was the spring of '88. I put out a whole series of tapes at that time that after another, bam-bam-bam, they were great one after another. Like, "48 Inventions" was one of my favorites also. I worked on that one, composing it, for about five years and recording it was pretty difficult too because these are very intricate little pieces and required a lot of discipline to master and I tried to pace them and organize the whole set as a unity, and it came off very well, much better than I had hoped, so that one's particularly successful.

Any others you'd care to mention?

"Tonecolor Variations", although that was a collaboration. All I did... "all I did" (laughs) was compose this six-minute piece.. but it was a real challenge to write it, to make something that had that kind of flow and continuity at that length, and what Lennart Ostman..when he orchestrated and arranged them he did a brilliant job as far as...he brought out a lot of nuances in the piece that one version wouldn't have said all that it had to say. For example, the version for woodwind quartet, you can hear a lot of things in that that you can't hear in the piano version and vice versa, and the same for all the other versions. They all bring out different facets of that little piece and I'm real happy with that one. And, uh..."Word War Four" with Courtesy Patrol came out very well, I thought. We had a lot of good ideas, we had a lot of fun making it, and we had a lot of participants who also were equally enthusiastic about it. It was also made around that period of Spring of '88. That was about the time we finished it, but it was in that period when I felt really inspired. Then there's the EP that I put out. I'm real happy with that because that seemed to be a new direction for me although now I realize that's just one aspect... I mean it's not a direction I can pursue single-mindedly. It's just like I've added another facet to the range of ideas that I'm working with.

While we're on the subject of EP, what was your first vinyl experience like for you?

A financial drain (laughs). It was... I think because of the amount of money I was investing in it, I took it a lot more seriously than any other project I've ever worked on before, so it required a lot more recording and recomposing and... I created about a dozen or so pieces that were potentially useful for it and it was a matter of selecting and polishing those that I thought were the best, so it was very the time I was done with it I was rather tired of it (laughs), 'cause I worked very hard on it trying to perfect it and I was afraid it would become sterile by the time I was done with it, but fortunately I don't think that happened. And of course taking the tape down to the recording studio and sitting there behind the board while the guy's saying "Do you want some digital reverb on it?" And I said "Sure!" You know, slap it on! (laughs).

Like asking if you want sour cream with your baked potato...

(Laughs) Yeah, well, he was very accomodating and I felt like a real big-shot sitting there behind the board, you know, in this over-stuffed chair and directing him around, you know? And of course getting the test pressing was a real kicker and then getting the finished product, of course. It's always fun to, uh... anyone who's put out a record knows what it feels like...It feels like you've reached a certain amount of legitimacy, just having it out, even if you've had to do it yourself as a vanity pressing thing. But one interesting sidelight to doing that is that I take my cassettes more seriously now, because I realize that, even though I don't invest as much money into producing them, that should in no way indicate in any way that I should take them less seriously. Because now that it's done with, I no longer think of it in terms of all the money I had to spend on it and so forth. So now I listen to it and just think of it as a damn good piece of work and not just a financial investment.

Did you send it out to many radio stations?

A few. Not as many as I wanted to. At the time, I was too concerned with sending them out as demos to the record companies...which were summarily ignored, of course... and I had a feeling that would happen but I felt it was something I had to try. I had to see what would happen. But it didn't seem to hit anyone particularly well, but...(chuckling, he shrugged)...(laughs) I shrugged, folks, okay? No, it's a ...(dammit!) Back to cassettes. It's a cassette magazine, remember? (laughs)

Of your various collaborations, do you have any favorites besides "Tonecolor Variations"?

The one I did with John Oswald, "Diesel Restaurant/Color Breathing", was especially good. We seemed to be in sync as far as...the material he sent me was eminently, uh....I'd hate to degrade it by simply saying it was "usable" but it was, seemed to strike a very good chord with me and I was able to meet it's demands, so to speak. I was able to work within the framework he gave me very successfully. I think, and that one came out particularly well. And this big collaboration I just did an EnDuration, which has twelve different contributors on it. It came out pretty good. It was sort of a collage more than anything because there were so many people involved that I got to the point where I just wanted to combine different people in different ways...sort of set them off from each other. The people who've heard that enjoy it. I recently finished a collaboration with Chip Handy, the guitar improviser from California. That's an area I haven't done much work in myself but I really enjoyed that because it was different. And of course he's one of the great guitar improvisers. I rank him right up there with Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith myself. So it was a real honor to be able to work with him, and also it stretched me out a little.

How did you two work? Did he send you material to work on, or did you send him stuff?

He sent me a tape of guitar solos he had sone which he felt needed something and I added a second guitar to these pieces and I improvised them just as he improvised his so I improvised right along with the tape as though he were right there playing with me.

Do you feel you've learned anything useful from being involved in the underground music scene for the past seven years?


Okay, like what?

Don't take criticism of your work too seriously. The whole point behind doing it is... no one's in this cassette culture to make money, few people are anyway, so don't take the criticism seriously because you should just do what you want to do anyway, which is the whole point of doing it the way we are doing it.

What else?

You can save a lot of money on postage by not mailing boxes out with your tapes. (chuckles)

(laughs) Oh, a very useful insight!

Well, lets face it: most cassette artists probably have tons of boxes sitting around their houses anyway. Most likely.

If they aren't sending them out, that's probably why!

Exactly. Well, I think that's the way it ought to be. You know, there's no point in us trading cassette boxes. And at any rate, if you get a tape and you don't happen to have a box handy you can always go out an buy one. If I had mailed out cassette boxes with every tape I've sent out, it would be as though I'd mailed out an additional hundred tapes or something, as far as the cost of postage is concerned. And that can really add up. If you really want to get your music heard, you have to send out a lot of tapes and you have to conserve any way you can. Sometimes you even have to cheat a little at the post office by not telling them there's a letter enclosed. (chuckles) For some bizarre reason, they always ask you "Is there a letter in here?" (laughs) and I say, "Oh, no! Huh-uh" (laughs) Well, I mean, it's going by weight anyway, so what the hell's the difference? I mean, the paper weighs 1/2 ounce or whatever and that's what's being mailed out is that weight, whether it's written material or a personal letter or a greeting card or whatever, it's none of their business. Or soiled underwear, it doesn't matter (laughs)

Do you send a lot of those out?

(laughs) Well, James Hill told me about...he wanted people to.. "Send me anything, something useful or funny or different or weird or whatever," in trade for his tapes and he mentioned some woman sent him a pair of soiled underwear. And he wrote her, "Thanks Barb: you know what's funny!" (laughs) That's what brought that to mind.

Any other useful "cassette culture" ideas?

Don't make a tape if you don't have any ideas. Don't make a tape just 'cause you want to make a tape. Don't bother. (laughs) No one wants to hear it. When you start making tapes, don't send out your first ten tapes. Keep working till you've really got it honed down to what you want. Don't make 90-minute tapes if you can avoid it 'cause they're too long, let's face it.

Are you still doing one-of-a-kind tapes?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I sent Bryan Baker an article about them.

When did you start doing them, and why?

Well, I'd say I've been doing them ever since I started home-taping, even before I started releasing tapes. They were just for my own amusement. But the reason I still do them now is that they allow me to stretch out and do things... not take myself too seriously and play around a lot more than I normally would. When I'm making a tape specifically for release I tend to week out a lot of extraneous matter or just try to make them conceptually coherent. But with the one-of-kind tapes I can just throw in any ideas that I feel like at any given time...and so they won't always work as a whole sometimes but that's the nature of allow myself to stretch out a bit. And there's also a conservative aspect to it in that instead of sending out dozens of copies of tape and adding to the general glut of tapes that are out there I'm just sending out one tape. You see what I'm saying?

You think there's a glut of tapes out there? (laughs) Maybe... maybe even two gluts?

(chuckles) There's a lot of stuff floating around, that's for sure, and a lot of it...well, I won't say a lot of it..

Most of it?

A...good deal... we could do without since, as I mentioned, people tend to pretty much just make a tape for the sake of making a tape.

How many one-of-a-kinders do you think you've done?

There's no way of telling. Must be a couple of hundred by now. Generally when I get a new piece of equipment I'll go crazy and do a lot of experimenting and playing around with it and I'll do a lot of one-of-a-kind tapes and send them out....(Tape runs out and the rest of the reply is lost forever...)

What are some of your all-time favorite recordings, and why?

The Beatles (white album): the variety and quality, just consistently brilliant from one end to the other. It's amazing that they were falling apart as a band yet still managed to put together such an impeccable piece of work. Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: a lot of variety, a lot of great ideas; it's a masterpiece, it just doesn't let up. There are no flawed points in that album that I can think of. Zappa was pushing a lot of boundaries out at that point; very innovative. And it's hard to be innovative and a great musician at the same time, to invent practically a whole new style of music and do it technically well. Another Green World by Brian Eno: he showed how one could create all sorts of arrangements of different instruments, how one could make all sorts of heterogenous elements work together and create a somewhat seamless whole. He seemed to be grabbing at anything he could get his hands on and utilizing it. Also with that album he seemed to single-handedly create the "new age" genre. Zoolook by Jean-Michel Jarre: it's probably the best use of sampling combined with acoustic and electronic instruments that I've ever heard. Blue Oyster Cult's first album: they added an intellectual quality to rock that seemed to be lacking at that point. Their lyrics were very arcane and mysterious but seemed to have a lot of literary and philosophical references. They seemed, also, to be developing the heavy metal genre at that point. Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson: it seemed to sum up the progressive rock idiom of the late '70's without being bombastic or self-congratulatory. There was a lot of subtlety to it. Residents' Commercial Album; what can I say? Residents, you know? I can't really say anything about it. It's something if people haven't heard it, they're missing a great deal. Band on the Run by Paul McCartney...

Pardon me while I draw back an inch or two .... (laughs)

That's simply his best work ever, I mean his best solo work. He hasn't done anything solo before or after that has really matched it in overall quality. Speechless by Fred Frith: it seemed like he was taking the really experimental ideas of progressive rock and stretching them and taking them where they should have gone had progressive rock still been a populist idion by that point, which would have been 1980 or so. There's a three-record set of Steve Reich's music that contains "Drumming", "Six Pianos", and "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ". It's pretty much full-flowered minimalism and I don't think anyone does it quite like Reich does, or did, or still does. I think he himself disparages that categorization but he did some of his best work in process or minimalist music at that point with those three major pieces on that album. Hymnen by Stockhausen: he took the Cologne School of Electronic Music farther than it had ever been at that point (1966) and it's still a landmark album. A lot of home-tapers would do well to listen to that album and understand proper techniques for collaging. As the composer Mel Powell once said: :Writing electronic music requires every bit as much discipline as writing eight-part madrigals for voices." (chuckles) People don't realize that; they think they can throw pretty much anything they want at you, and it's not true. Exposure by Robert Fripp: again, it was progressive music of the 70's taken to the point it ought to have gone to. It's one of those albums with a great deal of variety and a lot of textures, and it seemed to be summing up for Fripp a lot of directions he was heading in and it seemed like he was trying to consolidate it and put it all out in one shot so he could continue on with other ideas. But it doesn't sound like a clearing house (chuckles) by any means.

Who in the cassette underground would you say in doing significant work?

tf: Dino Dimuro is one. Minoy has done some brilliant work. I would equate it with some of the best so-called academic avant-garde... A lot of people are going to hate me because I didn't mention their names! (laughs) Lawrence Salvatore is doing some of the best songwriting of the whole bunch. He has his very personal viewpoints (chuckles), sort of an uholy marriage between Jimmy Webb and Kurt Schwitters, presided over by Salvador Dali. (laughs) Croiners: some of the best tape loops, or digital loops in his case. He knows how to make loops work and his use of found sounds is very meticulously planned and well thought-out. Zan Hoffmann! He's a genius, a mine-field of ideas! (laughs) Call him! Everybody! Everybody out there call him. Here's his phone number: 502-454-3944. Call the guy, talk to him.

Any particular hours?

Doesn't matter: he's awake all the time.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't covered so far?

Yeah, I'm sick of these people who say that decaffeinated coffee is no good for you. I'm going to continue to to drink it.

Anything else... anything pertinent, that is....

(chuckles) Yes, people should keep working and working at what they're doing, but...

You mean "keep that day job"?

Yeah (laughs), hang on to that day job, definitely! No, people should work more release less tapes. (chuckles) Practice.... makes ...perfect .


Tom Furgas

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