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  • Cougar
    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    When you listen to the music of Cougar, you're going to find your mind in a more relaxed state. Seriously, when I listened to Law, the debut of this heretofore unknown quintet, I found myself shedding the stresses of the day in a rather quick-like fashion. Further listens--when I was in a more alert state--led me to discover that if you listen hard enough, you'll hear things in their music. Things like: people wadding up paper. Television sets. Heavy breathing. Things that seem accidental are, in fact, are quite intentional, as revealed to us by Cougar's percussionist, D.H. Skogen.

    In perusing your bio, it seems you have a pretty extensive philosophy behind your music. Could you tell me a little bit about how the band came about, and did the band form as a result of that philosophy?

    We didn't actually realize until a little while ago that four of the five members of the group met in Richard Davis' Black Music Ensemble. That was the first time we ever came across each other, but we didn't really start making music as Cougar until some time later. We got together in our guitarist Trent's basement. We were just lpaying around with ideas and things like that, but it became pretty clear early on that we were becoming a group, and that we wanted to keep it short and simple, in a way. There's not a whole lot of noise in our music. Then, when Scott Pauli got involved with the art design, it seemed like it complimented the record really well, and the aesthetic started to become, "Blur the lines between organic and inorganic."

    Was the Layered Collective born about this time?

    No, the Layered Collective's been around quite a while, way before Cougar. The first time Layered really came together was with the YoungBlood Brass Band, which we're involved with, and they've been touring for about eight years. They did a record with a label in New York, and then they sort of started Layered. Also, Youngblood was doing a lot of work, and we decided to put it under the Layered Collective umbrella. Other people came on board, and all of these different things were added to what it did, and Cougar actually became Layered artists through my connection with YoungBlood.

    Listening to Law, I get a sense that the recording was very spontaneous? Was it, or was it more meticulous?

    A lot of the sound ideas are structured, and the sounds we used were born through spontaneity and experimentation, but the song ideas and melodies were premeditated. But a lot of what I did percussion-wise and production-wise was stumbling around a bit, and finding the sound I wanted to produce a synthesized sound. Part of the margining together, whether it was a sampled sound or a live sound, was that we wanted it to sound modern and produced, yet we wanted it to have a more organic vibe. We did a lot of hitting different things; we'd crumple paper up, hit metal canisters--that sort of thing, just trying to find the natural sounds we desired.

    To me, it seems like you're approaching the creation of music from a yin/yang perspective. When you think about a lot of instrumental music, you find that it has a tendency to be very cold, very mechanical, very technical, and very clean sounding; it's detached from the natural elements of an imperfect world. It seems like you want to blend the mechanical elements with the natural, imperfect world.

    Yeah, definitely. Also, we approached the music backwards, in a way. We were formulating all these songs and ideas and kind of had an idea about what we wanted to have the final record sound like; we had an idea of having it like one long musical phrase, and then bring the songs in as necessary. We also knew we had some ideas that we wanted to slip underneath the larger picture. There are some improvisational ideas floating around beneath the surface of the record. We knew we wanted to slip those inside, because if there's a lot of struggle going on, it would sound a bit too electronic and mechanical. We did the best we could to tow the lines between the two, to have it coming out sounding like both.

    In some ways, I'm reminded of Glenn Gould's recordings. One of the big controversies of his career was that he would record and perform these drop-dead gorgeous interpretations of classical compositions in radical, unfamiliar ways, but at the same time, he would absolutely confound critics because on his recordings or in his performances, you would hear him coughing, breathing heavily, and even singing along. On the first few songs on Law, I noticed that alongside these beautiful melodies, you could hear people talking and a television playing. Was this something planned, or was it happenstance?

    It was planned in the sense that we wanted to keep in anything that added to the atmosphere. There were a few times--and I'm thinking of the song "Interracial Dancing"--on it, Aaron's breathing is really loud; he's shaking this bottle that had water in it, and his mouth was rather close to the microphone, so his breathing made it onto the tape. There were some times later in the record where we were recording in Trent's basement and he had a lot of things down there that we were moving around in this small space, so there are little things like that. There's a very open sound to the record; one song, I'd started packing my cymbals upside down, upon a linoleum floor. I played them with mallets, but I was letting them rock on the floor and band upon the linoleum randomly. That kind of thing informed both sides. It helped put a form and structure that was basic and simple and understandable--even kind of poppy. We wanted to borrow things from the spectrum of new music and put them in a context where people who know nothing about experimental music can still enjoy what's going on. I teach a high school drum line, and we'll get parents who are, like, fifty years old and have no knowledge of post-rock or any kind of progressive music, but they've heard Law and they think the music is rather amazing. They're not in tune with it being experimental music; they simply enjoy it for what it is, and they aren't concerned about musical theory.

    One of my own frustrations with a lot of experimental music is that some feel that if the music isn't painfully complex and it's not off-putting to a casual listener, then somehow you've failed, and you aren't truly "experimental."

    The sense I get in modern music is that if you do anything without a trace of irony, then you're suspect. Some feel that musical compositions shouldn't be soothing or beautiful simply because they are. They feel like you should do something that is homage to something else, and you should be wistfully ironic. Instead of simply being, some feel like it should be something more. That's why a lot of music I like doesn't get much attention. Music I like, such as West African percussion, or even some music from New Orleans--which is what Youngblood is rooted in. Music that's pure, it's natural, it's enjoyable, and it's devoid of irony. It's celebrating life. I think the idea of celebrating music without some kind of art theory is important. You don't have to have a Ph.D in theory to enjoy music, and you don't have to prove that you're intellectually sound to make beautiful music.

    Cougar's Law is available now on Layered

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    posted by joseph kyle @ 11:33 AM  
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