Words by David C. Obenour
After two albums of multi-genre inflected trance, Jay Crocker is taking a different direction for his JOYFULTALK pandemic record. Based out of rural Nova Scotia, remoteness is a familiar setting, however isolation lead to its own series of limitations and inspirations. Utilizing samples from frequent collaborators like percussionist Eric Hamelin and the late saxophonist Dan Meichel, Crocker stitched Familiar Science together with added improvisations filling and connecting the concepts. The results land in a unique space between experimentalism, jazz, electronica, funk, post-rock and minimalism.
Off Shelf: One of the first things that hit me listening to Familiar Science was the rhythm section and I wanted to break that apart a little. The album features the work of three different drummers and I wondered if you could talk about that a little – what each musician brought to the recording and how you were able to keep a through line?
Jay Crocker: The initial seeds of the project came through a series of solo drum improvisations, that were sent to me by my longtime friend Eric Hamelin, that I cut up and recombined. Before I left Calgary I was doing a lot of free jazz and free improvisation in the scene there, but I feel like my main collaborator around that time, in that music, was Eric. In winter of 2021 Eric had sent me some solo improvisations he had recorded. I started putting them into the sampler and started to find some really interesting patterns and phrases. I started shaping these patterns and writing melodies for them.
Take it to the Grave features Chris Dadge on drum set. Chris plays an improvised swing over Eric’s sample as I improvise on guitar. Chris is another Albertan collaborator and friend that I played with a lot back in Calgary. He runs the Bug Insicion label and improvised music series in Calgary. Chris and I spent a lot of time together discovering new sounds and doing a lot of listening. And was great to get his voice – particular his jazz voice – on this record.
Most of the other tunes are samples of Eric except for Blissed for a minute in which I play drums over a tape loop and Particle Riot which is a drum machine sequence.
OS: There are also a lot of adventurous rhythms that still keep finding that hypnotic head-nodding groove. What is the balance of locking into that, riding it, but knowing when to throw listeners off with something new?
JC: I think if I get bored or disinterested in a certain section of a piece it needs to change or end. Through my compositional process I don’t really consider the listener directly but maybe through an evaluation of my own ego in the music. Some things need to be indulged at certain points and other things need to be indulged at other points. Its a fine line between being critical of yourself but also trying to get closer to understanding who you are as an artist.
OS: The bass also is mixed loud and a perfect accompaniment – what role does its part serve in riding out some of these rhythms? How does it ground the music and let it reach further?
JC: The bass is the bridge between rhythm and harmony/melody so it plays kind of the ultimate roll is some music. I played all the electric and synthesizer bass on these recordings and was trying to give it some funk. I was able to ground the samples a little through the bass lines while also giving the music a more recognizable identity.
OS: There are also some really interesting vocal parts thrown in there. What made you add them into a more predominantly instrumental album and how do you think that adds to the songs?
JC: I’m not sure what the inspiration was – maybe some Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra… John Lurie – but I just felt like a few of those tracks need some wordless vocals. Singing feels good. I do have difficulty hearing my own voice and not wanting to hide in a dark cave but it is an example of understanding what needs to be there regardless of ego or fear or self criticism.
OS: Jazz is one of the genres JOYFULTALK loosely falls under and I wonder how you do and don’t identify with that as a genre tag?
JC: I feel like jazz is the music that I still constantly explore and go back to again and again. I love it. It’s the form of music that never stops teaching you, loving you, hating you, kissing you, kicking you. It’s such a mediation for for me. Sometimes I feel good about it and other times I feel like its so challenging and out of reach. But it’s still, for me, about finding my own voice in that music. That’s the best part about it… it changes as you change, it changes with you and around you and it is able to reflect the different versions of yourself for better or for worse. For me it’s about trying to find the connection between myself and the energy around me and how to interact with that in the moment.
OS: Electronica is probably the other big one, so what parts of that do you find yourself wanting to celebrate or distance yourself from with JOYFULTALK?
JC: I found electronic music through improvisation. As I started moving deeper into improvised music I started moving deeper into electronics simultaneously. I started adding more homebuilt electronics to my improvising palette and eventually it kind of took over. I then started writing scores and pieces for these instruments which led to sequencing and sampling while still adhering to the idea of never being controlled by these instruments and knowing them well enough to be able to perform with them with same fluidity as I can on guitar. I don’t think a want to distance myself from it but rather let it just be part of the palette.
OS: This music feels very much alive and ripe for riffing and improvisation in a live setting. How does your approach to recording vary from your live performance? Or is the recording just more a single capture of a live performance?
JC: Familiar Science is very collaged due to my location and the pandemic. I have also developed a very consistent solo practice but this record is a transition into a more live interaction. I think I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be able to perform these pieces with a small group. For the upcoming shows I will be performing the music with drums, guitar/electronics and keys and adding other musicians in different cities.
OS: We’re coming off a number of years without live performances. How has the time away changed how you approach playing and performing? Have you re-evaluated anything in the absence?
JC: I live in rural Nova Scotia so out of necessity I had to developed strong solo art making process and before the pandemic I wasn’t a lot performing a lot and when I did it would be a in a solo or duo configuration. I think the pandemic has made me miss playing with a group or using a bit more of a “traditional” approach. I think that it is part of why Familiar Science was made the way it was. I was maybe longing to get back to something like a had experienced in the past…
OS: The album also makes use of live samples of the late Dan Meichel on saxophone. Can you talk about how meaningful it was to be able to incorporate that into the recording?
JC: Danny was a great improvisor and a lovely human. I learnt a lot from him and I miss him. I feel like he really had the sound of a true improvisor. I’m not sure I totally understood how good he actually was until now. I was going through old recordings I had made of some large group improv’s and there were certain sections where it was mostly his voice poking through so I sampled him and created the music around him. Hagiography is built of a recent sample of Eric on drums with an old sample of Danny playing over top. It’s kind of my hologram tribute to him, I think he would’ve loved it.