There was a great thread on twitter this week about west coast psych/drone zoners and M. Geddes Gengras mentioned Starving Weirdos. I’ve been down the rabbit hole again ever since. Brian Pyle was a real kindred spirit back in the day (and I believe, fellow Arsenal fan so probably not feeling great about that this morning!) and I always loved working with him on various projects (that first Ensemble Economique album on Digitalis still rules). Anyway, very stoked to share this again from 2008.
At the same moment I am writing down my questions for the Californian out-there sound combo Starving Weirdo’s, there’s an evacuation exercise going on in the court of justice, just across the street from our office. Hundreds of employees are flowing from the two main entrances like a huge human sausage. The alarm sounds like a huge analog synth that must be somewhere on top of the glass monster. Played by Mick Jagger, like in Kenneth Anger’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother” only slightly more minimal. Anyway, an ideal background for an interview with Brian Pyle and Merrick McKinlay, the core duo of the band.
What did you guys do before Starving Weirdos? What’s your musical background?
Brian: Before SW… Well pretty much everything I do now minus SW! lots of four-track experimenting, walks in the woods, not going to college. My musical background is that of having a musical family — Almond farmers in rural northern California, everyone played instruments and had strong four-part harmony jams anchored by my grandpa. He had immigrated from Okie-land/dust bowl during the depression and brought with him lots of hard-scrabble old-time music and subjected my father and uncles to hours of drunken singing. music was always at the forefront of our family and your ability to play was always prized and respected. I grew up with this ranch-style jam-band vibe and it’s had a massive influence.
Merrick: My dad was a rocker and always had a home recording studio setup, endless overdubs. I picked up a guitar in high school, free-form jams for a long time. Dropped out of a music major. Moved to Humboldt, met Brian. We did all sorts of stuff, lots of live randomness, and eventually ended up in a nearly-functioning pop band together- doing some of Bri’s many killer songs. But, the Weirdos’ spirit has been there throughout.
What did you study?
Brian: I rejected higher education over a decade ago as being a complete waste, both intellectually and monetarily. I’m an avid reader of both the New Yorker and The Believer and these two avenues of information provide me with all the higher education I need! That and a heady stream of public radio, PRI, BBC, and the like, and of course daily walks through nature which always has something to teach me.
Merrick: I did a degree in Religious Studies. Now I work at a video shop.
Can you give me a description of an average Starving Weirdos rehearsal?
Brian: Bring a bunch of shit, set up somewhere, set up some mics(sometimes half-assed, sometimes with sincere effort), load a bowl, spark it, pass it, hit record, and GO.
Merrick: Yeah, usually we’re cramped in some unkempt, tiny-ass room (at my pad at least). Typically ramshackle. Small amps. Chords everywhere.
We try out ideas, tempos, densities, sound palettes, try and develop themes… Usually, if we’re preparing for a performance. Other than that, we never have conventional rehearsal sessions.
How important are drugs for Starving Weirdos?
Brian: I’d be lying if I said pot didn’t have an influence but it of course does! It’s pretty much being consumed during and around all Starving Weirdos musical activities.
Merrick: Brian & I do get high. But there are usually at least two other nearly-sober folk playing with us… so it’s not like we’re dope specific. I think it’s just a quick way to get into a receptive state. where you are really engrossed in every moment. I firmly believe our music would be very much of the same ilk, had we quit the devil weed years ago, though. but who knows?
And there are so many other things much much more important in life that factor into our music.
Like a lot of people, I first heard your music through Aquarius. How important has that Aquarius story been for the band?
Brian: It’s the most important. Without Aquarius, I don’t think anyone would have ever heard of our music. Merrick and I recorded as Starving Weirdos for a full six years. Almost as a secret. We really didn’t think anyone would give a shit because we knew the recordings were far out and we just didn’t think there was an audience for extreme improv-type shit. Needless to say, we were quite surprised how warmly our music has been received.
Merrick: Big ups to Andee and Aquarius records. They do so much for ALL of us, bands and music lovers alike. Mind-boggling how they keep it up. Not only Aquarius, but the whole DIY Label scene, Root Strata, Jyrk, etc. have spread the love, and working with folk like that is totally INSPIRATIONAL. I mean, I think the “band” would still exist without any attention, but by virtue of people like Andee, music like this can reach an audience. And that notion is always thrilling, and a great motivator to keep innovating and trying to work on the craft. But it’s true, after that first write up people began approaching us about stuff, and it just snowballs a little from there as you meet more and more receptive people.
Are there current bands you find you relate to?
Brian: Oh yeah! Too many to list! I’ll just keep it to the west coast: Valet, Yellow Swans, Cloaks, many, many more.
Merrick: Lots. Hanging with NNCK and seeing them slay in my friend’s living room was very reassuring somehow. I really enjoy their use of cult/ritual elements. They have INTENTION and FREEDOM. I think that is great. Lots of people have it. You know it when you see it. That’s what you strive for.
AMM pops up a lot. That’s quite a name to be compared to. Are they a direct influence?
Brian: No shit! And we are honored to be mentioned in the same breath as such a great group. You bet they are, especially concerning the use of tape and the use of conventional instruments in unconventional ways. But mainly the spirit of AMM is something we connect with I think directly. We have a double LP coming soon on Weird Forest and there is a track on that called “Häagen Dazs” that I think exemplifies this loose connection we have with the great AMM. More so than any of our previous work that has brought up AMM in reviews.
Merrick: I saw them once in some crazy cool LA theatre, and was absolutely fucking floored! I had never heard them before, but had been reading Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation and just getting into the staples of far-out music; Beefheart, CAN, etc. But AMM had it. Intention and magic. Changed my life. I don’t think we sound like them at all really, but after re-reading some Cardew interviews, I see similarities in our approach, like the idea that their music had to have an element of chaos to start, and in that chaos new connections could be made. If you are truly going to have a ‘genesis’ of music, this initial state of chaos was requisite. I like this idea.
Why are you Starving Weirdos?
Brian: When Merrick and I thought up the name it seemed funny to us and totally applied to the recordings we were making. on the fringe, desperate, not giving a fuck! musically hungry!!!
Merrick: Verb. Plural noun.
Where does the inspiration come from?
Brian: Life mainly. For example, that evacuation exercise you just experienced I think I would find inspiring; giant analog synth sound with people shuffling out, simply replace the people with a sporadic drumbeat and perhaps some feedback and presto! Our music, I believe, is an extension of our personalities a bit. We are inspired by rad sounds and how they interact and make us feel. Just the act of creating and engaging this part of ourselves is inspiring… Sometimes ecstatic, sometimes cathartic. The inspiration varies much like life, and fuck man life can be intense.
Merrick: I feel it in the body first, then it comes out in a rush through the arms, fingers, and voice, finally reaching the brain. Hopefully, too many wires don’t muck up the whole thing.
What are your favorite books?
Brian: Most recently, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Chabon. I felt it was tremendous, and had a massive scope! I love Murakami, namely Norwegian Wood and South of the Border West of the Sun (along with millions of others!) Vonnegut’s first book, Player Piano, had a massive influence along with Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing. Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita also played their respective parts in shaping my perspective.
Merrick: Right now… Greed (Elfriede Jelinek) & Jerusalem (William Blake). also Gravity & Grace (Simone Weil) & Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein) I never finish or claim to understand them, forever lost in their beauty.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Brian: I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I guess I believe in people that are sensitive to the paranormal and can produce some sort of evidence that a connection has been made. But fuck can we really say that there are no ghosts? Probably much going on we humans don’t have access to. So yeah I’m open-minded to the idea of ghosts.
Merrick: I find it very hard to believe that the disembodied spirit of Joe Blow exists beyond death anywhere other than in the minds of those who claim to know it.
Does music ever make you paranoid? If so, which music?
Brian: No, not normally. Perhaps if the conditions are just right I may get paranoid during a listening session but usually, I’m just curious rather than paranoid. If there’s any music form that could induce a paranoid feeling it would be that of the classical avant-garde.
Merrick: “The Blimp” – Captain Beefheart
Do you make other art apart from music?
Brian: Some have referred to my top-spin backhand as a work of art! (actually, no one has but a part of me would love for someone to say that!) Yeah of course! I love poetry, collage, photography (the cover of Father Guru is my handiwork).
Do you have animals?
Brian: Oh yeah! Both my wife and I are massive cat people and share a love for animals! Like many people, I feel most at ease with my cat Lulu and I have and have had very strong bonds with cats. Through each stage of my life, I’ve had a cat to help guide me through all the ups and downs of life. A year and a half ago our beloved cat, Argyle, passed away and it was the toughest, most painful thing we have ever experienced—not to say I’m not affected by humans! I’ve lost friends and family before and it was tough and painful, but this was something else I can’t quite articulate. It was really hard. Beyond cats, I love all animals; truly a blessing for us humans.
Merrick: I’ve got a kitty too now. I was watching it for my girl, but it looks like she’s mine now. Twist of fate. (which I don’t believe in either)
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