Dan Friel, solo electronic artist formerly of Brookyln staple Parts & Labor, was kind enough to allow us to sit down with him in his beautifully lit practice space on Meserole St. in Bushwick (three ma fuckin’ windows, dawg!). While his latest solo outing Total Folklore may have been the optimal focus right before its release, I couldn’t help myself but to direct the questioning around his development as an artist and how he’s become the veteran artist/dad with a mortgage who used to play rooftop performances littered with remote control cars and now composes pieces for string quartets. I guess that's what happens when three dudes wearing flannel sit down in a practice space scattered with delay pedals in the midst of winter.
My name is Daniel Ryan Friel. I am thirty-six years old, and I was born in North Hampton, Massachusetts.
What was your first instrument, Dan?
Umm…It was this keyboard. I got it when I was eight. Actually, it’s not this particular one–I keep ordering the same model. I have the one I got when I was eight at my apartment. It’s a Yamaha Portasound [PSS-460]. We got it for Christmas, I think, in 1984.
“We” as in your family?
Me and my brother. He plays bass. He doesn’t play as much anymore. He moved out of Western Mass. to Upstate New York–still plays bass a little bit.
So, from an early beginning at eight you were used to modulating sounds as opposed to playing a stringed instrument that wasn’t plugged into anything.
It’s true. It’s not like at eight I started doing what I do now. I started playing drums a little while after that, and then guitar. And then came back to this in maybe 2000 when I started burning out on guitar. I reached a point where I couldn’t do anything new with guitar. I needed new sounds. And I went back to this thing that was my first instrument and just started plugging it into all the guitar pedals that I’d been accumulating. And that’s how I ended up doing this.
Then what was the first memorable pedal that you either bought or received, and when did you get it?
I remember buying one of these [he taps his finger on a stickered pedal situated on the table holding his Portasound keyboard]–this is a Boss Bass OverDrive. I remember buying one of those when I joined a band in eleventh grade. Nothing fancy. When I was sixteen, seventeen I joined a grindcore band that some kids in the grade above me had that was playing punk shows in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I had never played bass, and, uh, yeah. Bass OverDrive.
And that opened up your eyes to the possibilities of manipulating sound?
A little bit. It was later on. So, through that band I ended up going to see a lot of noise bands playing in Western Mass. and New England in the early to mid ‘90s–which, in general, at that point were a lot of offshoots of the hardcore scene. There was a band from North Hampton–kids who were a little bit older than me called Proof of the Shooting who were really into God Flesh. We all worshiped God Flesh because they were heavy and brutal, but also were super inventive and explored a lot with sound. And Proof of the Shooting did a lot of circuit bending and plugged huge amplifiers back into themselves…just clearing everybody out of the room. That was my introduction into punk rock. I knew I was kind of making my way into underground shit at that point, but these kids were older than me and into deeper shit.
I was like, ‘Ok, so punk is about being punk and those guys just plugged an amp into itself and cleared the room. This is clearly the punkest shit.’
And, so that is where I started and gradually made my way more toward traditional punk music–I didn’t really listen to the Ramones until like eight years later. Through those guys I got into Merzbow, the Boredoms–the Boredoms were a huge influence on me and my friends–and then Man Is the Bastard and Amps for Christ–a lot of the West Coast weird hardcore shit that was going on.
The first weird thing that I did that I think led [to doing what I’m doing now] was after seeing Proof of the Shooting. I was digging through electronic toys that I had. And I took this remote control car joystick–one that has [both a vertical] stick and a [horizontal] stick–and I mounted it on the bass that I was playing in that band. I connected the metal of the antennae to the input jack of the bass with a paperclip and cranked up that Bass OverDrive, so when you steered different directions it made different notes. It sounded not too different from this keyboard, but the pitches weren’t as precisely spaced out so it was weird and microtonal and would do weird jumps. There are recordings of that band I could show you.
Yeah, that sounds pretty cool.
I used that same trick a little bit when we played on the roof over at the McKibben dorms. We had a bunch of kids from the neighborhood who were like eight, ten years old and we brought the [remote control] cars. So we let the kids drive the cars while the signals [from the remotes] were going into the amps. I got really into using those and walkie-talkies and stuff like that.
What other creative stuff not meant for triggering a signal through an amp have you used since?
I mean, who knows at this point. I’ve experimented with a lot of different things.
What was the most unsuccessful?
The remote control one was probably the most successful. There’s probably a two hundred way tie between every other thing that I tried to hook up that sounded stupid.
Trial and error, man.
Yeah, total trial and error.
So what prompted you to move to Brooklyn and how long ago was that?
I moved here in ‘99. I took a job at the Knitting Factory when it was still on Leonard St. in Manhattan. At that point I was obsessed with guys like William Hooker who were doing noisy prop stuff with DJs and sax players–John Zorn, shit like that, and Sonic Youth very much. So I moved down to take that job, and I worked there for about a year and a half and it sucked. My job was to book tours for people who put out records on Knitting Factory records–which at that point was in decline. There was a period there when they were putting out just improv shit with Thurston Moore, Elliot Sharp and William Hooker–a lot of shit that I was into. But people at Knitting Factory had burned all those bridges by the time I got there. So it was just like: book US tours for all these vaguely klezmer bands that nobody’s ever heard of and try and get them as much money as they get in Europe where there are funded institutions that will pay them.
I was bad at it and it was thankless and it fucking sucked, but I got to see a lot of good music at the time–just bands that were coming through the Knitting Factory that I could go see for free. So I would go see like the X, and Don Cab[allero] was on a tour that came through there a couple of times–and that was pretty cool. Melvins in the old Knitting Factory space which was pretty small and pretty loud. Master Musicians of Jajouka played there. Just fucking everything, so that was pretty pinnacle.
When did you start exploring music from the solo perspective?
The first real project that I had after moving to Brooklyn was the solo thing. I put out an EP in 2001 that I recorded in my basement in Bed-Stuy where I was living at the time. I just self-released and went on tour. Then I started Parts & Labor in 2002 and kept doing solo things on the side. So I kind of maintained a little bit of a balance.
So what are the benefits, for you, of being able to step away from making music with other people and being able to concentrate on what’s going on in your head…or your remote controls?
I don’t know…we have to carry less gear now. By ‘we’ I guess I mean ‘me’.
I miss playing with people, but I like the simplicity of playing music where I put everything I need in that backpack [points to a larger style black shoulder pack stored in the corner of the room]. And I can just take it on trains and planes and just tour like that. I’m starting to already miss playing with other people–and I will probably continue to do so for awhile and then just end up doing something else–but for now I’m pretty psyched just having freedom to explore.
Considering your abilities with sound manipulation, do you ever find yourself manipulating the music you listen to in a leisurely environment?
Yes. I fuck around a little bit. I took a whole Mississippi John Hurt record and played it through this rig (points to his keyboard connected to multiple delay pedals) so I could reduce it to where I could barely make the chord changes out–and that sounded pretty cool.
I feel like the broader answer to that is I really latch onto…there’s this deli by my house that has this fucked up boom box that they play Top 40 on which is blown out to the point where it’s compressed so much you can’t understand the song anymore, and nobody’s going to fix it. And I love it. I go in there just to listen to it. I guess I get into that question of how far can you distort and destroy a pop song or a simple melodic idea and still find it pleasing.
So let’s talk about Total Folklore–an album without any vocals. Considering, how did you come upon the title?
I don’t know. It sounds cool. It seemed to just fit the music. The melodies are all really simple and folky. They sound like folk songs to me–not all of them but most of them. I would say that’s definitely a theme. And using the word ‘folklore’ implies a little bit more of a storyline which I like. It’s not a story record–it’s not a concept album. But I like that it has the intermissions where it has sounds from around the neighborhood and stuff like that. And that it gave it sort of a linear feeling.
It does seem like there is some consideration of vocalized harmony with some of your compositions on Total Folklore. Say with a track like “Thumper”. Vocals would seamlessly fit into a formula like that. Right?
No. The solo thing I’ve always thought of as a purely instrumental thing. I wanted it to just be electronic music, and that was it. It’s always been about limiting my options and seeing how much I could create out of that. I don’t think I have anything deeper to say then, ‘Nah, I didn’t really think about vocals.’
How did you get up with Thrill Jockey for the release?</strong>
I talked to Kid [Millions] from Man Forever and Oneida. Thrill Jockey put out a ton of records that I was really into when I started doing this stuff like ten, twelve years ago. And they started signing friends bands like Dustin Wong, Man Forever, Guardian Alien, Double Dagger–just like tons of shit that I like. I was like, ‘It would make sense to send [Total Folklore] to them.’ And I got a really fast, really positive response. It was [also] cool to hop in during their twentieth anniversary shit too because the first time I played a Thrill Jockey show was with Tortoise and Matmos.
I don’t even know if they’d even seen me play me before that. So that was pretty sick. And back in the day, around 2000, they put out all those Mouse on Mars records and OOIOO and all these bands that were doing electronic shit that was weird but not noise. And that was sort of segue way for me. Also the Oval records were really heavy for me. As far as something that was totally weird and abstract but just pretty. So being able to work with Thrill Jockey later just feels full circle.
You were talking about manipulating a sound to its furthest extent before it becomes total discord, before. How do you feel the melodies in your music branch your style out beyond the noise variety and the noise artists you’re influenced by?
It’s not noise at all. All the people who work with pure noise are influences, but with my music it ends up being one ingredient. There are precedents like the Amps for Christ records. There'S an album called Circuits. Do you know that band at all?
So that dude used to be in a very weird hardcore band in the ‘90s called Man Is the Bastard, and he split off from them to make records that were kind of psych–like British folk, ‘60s shit, but with tons of homemade electronics and just crazy heavy shit. And the album Circus just blew my mind because it was legit, homemade, harsh, uncompromising. Not really made for anyone else, but also had these beautiful melodies. There's a song on there called ‘The Blacksmith’ that pretty much all my shit came out of.
Another guy I realize I probably got some of these ideas from is Albert Ayler–going back to the ‘60s. A guy who was involved in the birth of free jazz and a lot of harsh and exploratory music, but wanted melodies in the forefront tying it all together. Those are two good examples I can think of as using noise as an ingredient, but not putting it in the background. Giving it equal weight with melody you put a lot of thought into.
Looking back at ten years of living and playing in Brooklyn–being a part of Parts & Labor and so on. What’s the one thing you would tell yourself during recording that first solo album back in 2001?
Umm…Dan, you need a better recording setup. Yeah, I don’t know. Half that album was recorded on a boom box.
Sounds about right. And you said inevitably you’d wan’t to be involved with creating music with people in the future.
Yeah, I miss it. I think I need this time to explore and think what I am going to do next. And also to try as many things as I can to figure out new directions because Parts & Labor was pretty all consuming, and that was were all my energy went. I just wrote a string quartet, which is the first time I’ve ever done that, and that’s going to be played in a couple of months by this group called Ethel who are a pretty big shit string quartet. I did a thing last year where I was remixing Beethoven for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I think that once I figure out a couple of new ingredients and new ideas that I really want to pursue I’ll probably end up putting together some group at some point, but I don’t have any plans for that, yet.
Do you feel like you’ve had more free time since the split of Parts & Labor?
Hell no. I have a kid on the way in about three weeks.
Thank you. Me and my wife and two friends all bought a house that’s being fixed up around 23rd St. in Brooklyn that we’re going to be moving into. But we’ve got a mortgage and had to go through all that, which is pretty crazy.
That’s real adult stuff, man.
Yeah, man. I’m old.
Total Folklore is out now via Thrill Jockey.