Saturday, May 25, 2024

Interview with Cullen Gallagher by Dave Wolff

Interview with Cullen Gallagher by Dave Wolff

As a resident of Brooklyn, New York, how long have you been involved in the New York hardcore scene? What motivated you to become involved and how did you learn about it?
I was born in August, Georgia and grew up in Orono, Maine, where I played bass in a bunch of “attic” bands (since we couldn't play in the garage). I moved to NYC in 2003 and played in a couple rock bands, but mostly I was traveling in the repertory/indie/experimental film scene. I was making a lot of guitar-based instrumental and experimental music as Modern Silent Cinema, but these were home recordings and I was looking to play live, play loud, and I knew I wanted to sing, too. Problem was--I had no idea “how” to sing, or “what” I wanted to sing. And despite having played guitar since I was like four (mostly classical, but a little jazz), I also had this imposter feeling, like I wasn't a real guitarist. Then in 2013 a buddy turned me on to stuff like Descendents, Adolescents, Angry Samoans, and something just clicked. I loved the individuality of expression in these bands. They wrote, played, and sang exactly the way they wanted--and they didn't apologize for anything. I loved it. These bands gave me the confidence to stop trying to sound like other people. We formed a band called Night Squad and started playing shows right away.

When you first heard Descendents, Adolescents, and Angry Samoans, what about them appealed to you? In what ways did they inspire you to express your own ideas?
They were fast and loud and not afraid to embrace being weird. I guess I felt a bit like an outsider in my skin at the time, and when I heard them I could imagine myself with a guitar, belting that stuff out, and it just felt right. You could say that about a lot of music, but for whatever reason the stars aligned the moment I heard those bands. Descendents screaming about coffee and food. Angry Samoans turning a horror movie like “The Todd Killings” into a song (though it's more like a word game based around the title). The music was aggressive but also fun and nerdy, I could relate to that.

What was your experience playing in “attic” bands while living in Maine? Were any bands you formed serious in nature, or just for the hell of it?
This was the mid-90s in small town Maine. The local school probably barely had a few hundred students. My older brother managed to put together some groups but usually needed a bassist, so despite being four years younger I often got to join in. Hanging with older cooler kids playing rock n roll? Loved it! This was also before Myspace and internet communities were a thing, so we barely played beyond our town or knew any other bands with kids our age. In 1999 my brother moved to New York City to study classical guitar, and when I went to visit that’s when I realized there was more to playing music than just being in an attic in Maine. My last attic band moved to NYC in 2003 and gave it a go, but we didn’t really know how to get gigs so we only played a couple shows.

After moving to Manhattan, which rock bands did you work with? Were you considering it a local stint or something more serious? What were the number of clubs that hosted rock shows at the time, and how was the attendance when you performed?
Shoot the Piano Player was my first band in the city, indie rock, we moved from Maine together. We only lasted a year in the city before we went to other parts (I went back to Maine for a year, but returned to New York in 2005). At the time, I was trying to pursue some sort of career in cinema studies—programming/curating, reviewing, film history. For some reason, that seemed a more stable career than being a musician (boy, was I dumb!). So at that point I mostly recorded music in my apartment as Modern Silent Cinema, though I did play bass briefly in an indie rock band, Medium Cool, we did a small weekend tour, but that was about it. Early 2000s were great for rock clubs in NYC—more than I could possibly count, ranging from backrooms at bars to basement clubs to warehouses to actual big pro venues. One warehouse party in the meatpacking district was so crowded and sweaty I could barely keep my hands on the strings. Medium Cool opened up for Albert Hammond Jr. at Webster Hall which was definitely the biggest gig I’ve ever played, probably a couple hundred people there for us as the opening act? A lot more people were there for the headliner, haha. Fast forwarding to Covid, that’s when I really started to get more serious about getting my music out into the world. Demoted’s first two albums (“No Use” and “Not Myself Today”) were unused demos from Night Squad. Those lead to re-teaming with Squad bassist Phil Harrington and Anti-Difrano guitarist/singer Chris Hopkins, who agreed to drum for Demoted. When Chris moved to Texas after recording “Shit for Brains”, Demoted had to slow down (but we haven’t stopped! Working on a new E.P. remotely, and planning a short tour), and that’s when Steve Carface started, my solo hardcore project.

Were you able to visit any New York clubs before they closed, such as Continental and CBGB?
I made it to Continental but not CBGB, much to my regret. Had the chance, but I was more interested in movies at that point. I spent more time later on at more recent venues like Palisades, Silent Barn (second one), Death by Audio, Shea Stadium, Acheron—sadly, they’ve all closed. Saint Vitus is still around, but they are temporarily closed due to some permit issue stuff, hopefully it will be resolved soon.

Do you visit other clubs that are still open, or visit newer clubs?
There are good newer clubs. TV Eye is terrific, got to see The Crosses there a couple weeks ago (the original Die Kreuzen singer with a new band), Mirage opened for them and they're an insanely good hardcore band. Market Hotel was one of the classic early 2000s DIY venues, and it reopened a while ago as a legit spot, saw a great black metal bill there a few weeks ago (Ebony Pendant and Lamp of Murmuur). Hart Bar has a basement and is willing to host punk and noise shows, and Mama Tried in Sunset Park hosts free outdoor gigs all summer, lots of weirdo punk bands like Oof play there, it's great there are places like these still around. And there's always new places opening up. A few years back I was lucky enough to befriend some people doing basement and garage shows—incredible scenes that shined briefly. I'm sure there's more things like that happening, if you look deep enough.

What led you to become involved in the independent and experimental film scene in New York? When you began composing music, was this industry undergoing rapid growth?
As I mentioned, I was studying film history, and the years before streaming were incredible for the NYC film scene. Not as prolific as music clubs, but there were tons of great small venues still getting 16mm and occasionally 35mm prints of crazy ass movies. Writing about them for local magazines helped me make friends in that world, eventually I started writing for a site called Not Coming To A Theater Near You and we got invited to program a monthly series at 92Y Tribeca. It was a blast. The biggest relation to music was that these experiences showed me the benefits of being part of an active artistic community, which motivated me to get back into music.

What movies did you review before and after you began writing for Not Coming To A Theater Near You?
I don’t really know the numbers of our web hits, but for an early 2000s website reviewing mostly out-of-print and obscure movies I think we had an audience, and by design we didn’t accept any advertising so it was completely volunteer. Some of the writers have gone on to be successful, which is great. I wrote about silent cinema whenever I got the chance, and occasionally there was a crossover with music, like Pere Portabella’s “The Silence Before Bach” (2007), an experimental doc about Johann Sebastian Bach.

What do you think readers might find interesting about Portabella's “The Silence Before Bach”?
If you want a straight biopic, this is not the movie for you. I find that sort of biographical approach to music really boring and trite (and often it focuses on the wrong aspects of the artist’s life). “The Silence Before Bach” is more of a series of cinematic performance pieces—like a cellist playing Bach on a subway car. It’s about the music and space and ambience more than “Bach was born in yada yada yada.” If you want a different approach to music on film, it’s well-worth checking out.

During your tenure at Not Coming To A Theater Near You, what were the benefits of reviewing rare and out-of-print films? Did most of the films featured come from independent studios? Can you recall any that were particularly exploratory?
At the time, NYC had a thriving repertory scene, so you could see some amazing stuff that wasn’t easy to come by, and see it on a big screen. This was also before streaming, before Netflix, before full movies being uploaded to YouTube. We had access to Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place, so we could find tons of out of print VHS and DVDs and bootlegs, imported movies, stuff that was not easy to find. We did a series on Nicholas Ray—the director of “Rebel Without a Cause”—and at the time, many of his movies made for big studios were just completely unavailable, and we had to reply on crummy bootlegs. It’s wild how even a name like his, and movies made for big money, could still fall into obscurity. A good reminder that one should always dig! That certainly informed my approach when I got back into music.

Are you observing any changes in the indie film industry in terms of indie movies receiving more attention, and websites and podcasters offering their perspectives on indie and mainstream productions without the assistance of mass media?
I think there’s great potential for indie film, music, and indie arts journalism—but I think it’s going to be a struggle. Amazon, Spotify, the big names still control the market, they’re money machines and the money is in mega pop stars, not Demoted or Steve Carface, and not no-budget features without Hollywood stars. Stuff like the Oscars is as much about patting themselves on the back as it is reinforcing their dominance on audiences—they’re telling us that they’re important, that they’re the best, and they’re trying to groom audiences to want what they’re selling. Indie artists and writers have to support each other to get both of their work out there and reach a wider audience, we’re all in it together, and we’ll rise or fall based on how well we stick together as a real community. A great lesson one can learn from the history of punk is how they built networks of shows, touring, distro, fanzines, before the internet age. With the tools we have today, we should (and hopefully will) continue that legacy.

As a result of mutual support, the punk and hardcore scenes in New York are larger than ever despite the loss of CBGB, Continental, and other clubs from the classic era. You see the same at metal festivals organized by independent labels that draw crowds of arena proportions, built from the grass roots.
Bands and fans keep the community going, when one place closes another opens up, always new opportunities. Real estate prices are more insane than ever here in NYC, and that’s making it harder and harder for clubs to stay open and new ones to start, but people are trying to make it happen, one way or another. Union Pool, Kingsland, Alphaville, Windjammer, Wonderville, there’s still lots of great places to play here in New York.

Tompkins Square Park, where the activists who publish The Shadow and protest the real estate increases, are still hosting free shows and giving artists as well as bands a platform to promote their work. What do you find most beneficial about this?
Tompkins is such an iconic and symbolic part of NYC (going back to Tent City), I think it is great that the shows can be a way to keep it active as a political space and as a link between the past and future. Every inch of the city is being bought up, parks are some of the last public spaces out there, they are vital to the community.

What movies did you compose music for with Modern Silent Cinema? What guitar and recording equipment did you use during these sessions?
Modern Silent Cinema started in 2004 when I moved back to Maine as just some guitar chords recorded into a laptop so I could practice bass. The project grew—I scored a couple classic silents, like “Gertie on Tour” and “Anemic Cinema”—but mostly I just explored songwriting. Twenty years later, it’s still going, and I’m releasing (at least) six albums this year—the first in Jan. was solo piano, the second in March was an acoustic guitar and synth soundtrack to “The Cinema Detective”, an experimental dystopian essay film by my friend Matt Barry. MSC is also what lead me to writing hardcore punk. The instrumental songs kept getting closer and closer to resembling punk rock in their tempos and arrangements, and got to the point where I had to stop and finally start adding vocals. I’m now working on how to play MSC live as a solo guitar project, and that is going to be very influenced by my hardcore punk. In between writing these responses I’m trying to blend classical guitar-ish stuff with more noisy punk riffs. Not sure how it’s gonna work, but I’m trying.

In what areas of the print industry are Modern Silent Cinema’s albums getting recognition? What newer movies, if any, have you scored of late?
Still working on getting more coverage for MSC, the challenge with that project is it’s never sat firmly in “avant garde,” “noise,” “classical,” “rock, or any other genre. I can’t even call it 100% instrumental because I do a few songs with vocals on the album “Ghost”. Even though it isn’t easy to categorize, it’s the longest running music project in my life, and probably the one closest to my heart. 2024 marks twenty years of MSC, so to celebrate I’m releasing a ton of material, six CDs planned (and maybe a 7” if I can swing it). “Passages X-XXI” is my second collection of solo piano, sort of influenced by Ligeti and Satie. “The Cinema Detective” is mostly solo acoustic guitar with a few solo synth pieces, it’s a soundtrack to a movie by Baltimore artist Matt Barry, a dystopian sci-fi essay film about two film scholars doing detective work into some pirate broadcasts. The newest album is “The Cabinet of Modern Silent Cinema”, an archival collection of pieces that went astray or got lost over the years.

Was “Passages X-XXI” composed as a film soundtrack? What are Ligeti and Satie and how did they influence the recording of that album?
Cullen: That album wasn’t intended as a soundtrack, it was recorded while visiting my mother in Maine. Every time I passed by the piano, I tried to sit down and write something that would come naturally. I wrote and recorded the album in the exact order that it appears on the album, one of the most pleasurable and natural albums that I’ve ever made. Erik Satie and György Ligeti are two of my favorite classical composers, big influences on me. Ligeti has a series called Musica Ricercata, the first piece has one note (but at different octaves), the next piece two notes, and so on. I think it’s incredible the mood and melodies and rhythms he creates with so few notes! Satie is an impressionist known for his Gymnopédies, very atmospheric and delicate, I tried to keep that sensibility in mind.

For what recordings are Erik Satie and György Ligeti best known? Would you recommend these recordings to the readers of this interview?
Satie is best known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes for piano, I grew up on the Aldo Ciccolini recordings and he’s great. They’re very soothing and calm, and even if you don’t know them by name I’m sure you’ve heard them in movies, very popular and iconic. I discovered Ligeti through the soundtracks of Stanley Kubrick, parts of his Musica ricercata series was included in Eyes Wide Shut (the single and two-note haunting themes). Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the most acclaimed Ligeti performer (and the composer’s favorite), I got to see Aimard play Ligeti’s songs at Carnegie Hall last year and he was incredible.

In order to fit the Matt Barry movie, how did you arrange the material on “The Cinema Detective”? Why did you consider acoustic guitar and synthesizer an appropriate soundtrack?
I had worked with Matt on Forbidden Frames in 2022, and I had one acoustic guitar piece left over, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. My guitar was tuned in a weird way, and I whenever I went to tune it naturally I just kept remembering the melody and I’d keep it that way. When I saw the footage for The Cinema Detective, I realized it was the right place to start. Thematically, The Cinema Detective is about solitary people—a lone scholar contemplating the footage of a lone driver, taking to an AI simulation of a scholar. A single guitar seemed fitting. And because of the tech aspect of the story, a synthesizer also seemed appropriate.

What songs did you collect for "The Cabinet of Modern Silent Cinema", and how were they arranged to fit together?
"The Cabinet of Modern Silent Cinema" is the first of three archival collections coming out this year, the other two are Anemic Music and Aphonia. They started when I decided to organize my digital files and realized I had a lot more finished songs (or nearly) just sitting around. Most of Cabinet was actually an album called Bored Out Of My Fucking Mind that I had sequenced and mixed like ten or twelve years ago, but just completely forgot about it somehow. They’re cassette and micro-cassette based, so I threw on a few others songs from that era, including three guitar duets with my brother Boru which I also totally forgot we recorded. All of the material on the three albums is 2008–2012ish, so it was mainly just an issue of organizing them according to what sounded best to my ears, or that were related (like the stuff with my brother).

You mentioned two songs you wrote for Steve Carface, “Side” and “Other People”, which deal with making personal changes and prioritizing self-care over creating on the side. To what extent do these songs reflect your desire to create?
By Fall 2022, I was pretty frustrated with where I was in life. The Covid years did hell on the New York music scene. A lot of friends dispersed to other parts, or just stopped playing music. The community felt fractured. As I mentioned, Chris, the drummer for Demoted, was living in Texas. And all I knew was that I wanted to play music, and I wasn’t doing that. Steve Carface grew out of renting rehearsal space on Monday nights, sitting in a dented metal folding chair and banging a guitar and yelling until something coalesced. “Side” literally puts these feelings into words, “I’m not satisfied by living on the side.” For years that’s what I had been told was the smart thing to do—play music “on the side.” I absolutely hate those words and never want to hear them again. “Other People” channels a whole bunch of frustrations, haha. “I’m sick of doing shit for other people that doesn’t mean shit to me, why am I always putting myself last and pissing away my precious life?” There’s no subtext there—I just want to create something personal and that I believe in. I know for now I need a day job (and probably always will) to pay for rent and food, but do I have to be satisfied with that? Hell no. I’m trying to reclaim my mind and energy and time, as much as I can.

How long was Night Squad active, and did you release any material with them?
Night Squad existed for around four years, fall 2013 through spring 2017. We put out two tapes (“Fat Again” and “Shaken”), and posted a live album on Bandcamp, but we never really knew how to distribute the albums. Hell, I barely know that now, but that's something I'm trying to learn! Did a lot of emailing and packing up CDs/tapes and standing in line at USPS this year, but it's been fun seeing Demoted and Steve Carface get out into the world. I'm also working on putting together a collection of my demos during that period, and another compilation of live recordings.

Describe your experiences recording the earliest material for your bands. Which did you prefer, working in professional studios or recording on your own?
I’ve done almost exclusively home recording. Back in the 90s it was on Yamaha and Tascam cassette 4-track and 8-track recorders. Since the 2000s I’ve been using GarageBand, Logic, and I dabbled a bit with Ableton. The most “pro” experience was Night Squad recording in the drummer’s office (he worked in commercial jingles). For Demoted, “No Use” was recorded in my apartment on GarageBand, and “Not Myself Today” was recorded in my rehearsal space, I’d set up two mics (the most inputs my interface could handle), jump on the drum kit, then try to stay on tempo best I could. I’d then swing the mics around in front of my Fender Pro Jr. and record the guitars, which were usually way too far in the red. But I was impulsive, these weren’t intended to be released, it just turned out that years later when I finally learned to mix better (somewhat, haha) that they were able to be released. “Shit for Brains” was also recorded in a rehearsal space, but our drummer Chris Hopkins had much better gear so he could mic up drums properly, and he, bassist Phil Harrington, and I could all play together. The whole album was recorded live together. Steve Carface was a return to the “Not Myself Today” style of one-man-band recording, but I used a Zoom Q2n video camera to capture the drums, then I threw that into Logic and started adding guitars/basses/vox.

How have your bands evolved since their early releases? Considering all the instruments you play and the materials you have recorded with, how have they helped you progress in a natural way?
The biggest change since 1994, when I played in my first band, to now, is that back then I was playing bass and not super active in the songwriting process at first, whereas now I’m mainly playing guitar/singing and am the primary songwriter in Demoted, Steve Carface, Modern Silent Cinema, and the country singer-songwriter stuff under my name. I’m involved in other projects were I’m not the primary songwriter, sometimes I’m just learning a pre-written part, other times I’m contributing my own parts to a song someone else wrote. I love both ways of making music, it’s fun collaborating with other people, but I also enjoy projects where I’m working solo. Playing multiple instruments is helpful in that it provides different viewpoints on how instruments can contribute to and shape a song, sort of like walking a mile in another person’s shoes, gives you a different perspective on elements of composition and performance.

Which independent labels have helped promote your bands since you began releasing material, and to what extent have they helped you expand your fan base?
The only label I’ve worked with is Fuzzy Warbles, and they’ve been great! Ben Mancell is the brains of the operation, super supportive, heck he gave me the confidence to actually get Demoted off the ground, I just figured I had some demos that sounded ok, but his enthusiasm helped me get back on my feet and writing new material and playing shows. HIs tape label has a cool lineup of oddball rock, punk, synth, and other weirdo bands, I feel right at home there! They do a lot of shows together, so it’s a great community spirit. The Fuzzy Warbles experience inspired me to start my own label, Bad Channels Records, and right now I’m just dealing with my own recordings but hoping to start helping other bands once I have a bit more experience under my belt.

How long were you operating Bad Channels Records? Was it originally established to promote your bands? How did your experience with Fuzzy Warbles inspire you to form the label?
Bad Channels started October 2023, so it’s still very new. With so much music floating around on the internet, I feel like there’s a renewed importance for labels to act as hubs for artists and listeners. I see Bad Channels less as a “brand” than a gathering place. I’d like to start releasing other music, but I still have so much to learn and I’m using my own stuff to workshop and gain experience. I love Ben’s work with Fuzzy Warbles, they’re the sort of label I order everything that comes out, I don’t even listen ahead of time, I know it’s gonna be great, and at the same time I don’t know exactly what it’s going to sound like, and I like that element of chance, it’s cool that the label is willing to take chances on different sounding groups.

Has your label expanded, or do you plan to expand it to support other bands? How much promoting do you do to let people know the label exists?
I definitely plan on expanding, and still figuring out how to let people know! Greenpoint, where I live in Brooklyn, has a lot of great record stores, and Record Grouch has been super supportive and has carried a couple of the releases so far. I’m still packing up promos and sending CDs and tapes to zines and radio stations, and emailing files to internet shows, which is a fun way to connect with people, and it seems to be working. Got recent play on WFMU (New Jersey), Half 'n Hour Boots (Radio Bandito) out of Italy, Clean Nice Quiet (8K.NZ/KPISS.FM), Radio Eustachio (Italy), Punk AF Radio with Paul Hammond (England), WRUW FM91.1 (Cleveland, OH), and WMSE 91.7FM (Milwaukee). I was psyched when Maximum Rocknroll wrote about Demoted! There are so many streaming links online I think putting copies in people’s hands is the way to go, or at least offering—many times when I email asking for an address they just say to send files, but they seem to appreciate the gesture. Other people def want the physical copy, which I totally get, because that’s mostly how I listen to music.

Maximum Rocknroll is still active? I thought they folded some time back but I could have been wrong. Anyway, how often do you read that magazine?
Every Monday they post a batch of new reviews on their site, so I check it weekly, they still cover bands from all over the world so it’s a good way to find out what’s out there.

Do you likewise do mail order to support Bad Channels Records? What local bands and bands from elsewhere are you currently thinking of signing?
Yeah I’m doing some mail order tapes/CDs, would love to do lathe or real vinyl at some point in the future. I’ve talked with one band about releasing their complete discography, and I have a couple projects in mind that are currently active, but before I announce anything I wanna make sure I can handle the albums responsibly, get them produced in the right media format, get them in some stores and get press coverage.

Do you believe your work has had potential to influence popular music in any significant way? Would you like to expand the range of instruments you record with?
If I’m ever able to have any influence, I’d like to think that it’s from the audience side of things, supporting local shows, independent bands, and independent record stores. I love making music and will continue to do it, but it’s also deeply gratifying to be able to give back to the music community and other artists and show my appreciation. Regarding other instruments, I really want to buy a pedal steel—I play lap steel in Hard Job and love it, but the pedal steel is a totally different instrument and I’d love to give it a shot, I’m such a sucker for classic country music.

Would you be interested in joining a new band or project in the near future? If so, how do you anticipate growing as a musician? In what ways do you likewise wish to grow as a lyricist?
As far as lyrics go, I’d like to write happy songs, often I grab the guitar and write when I’m feeling low, and it’s a great outlet, but I’d like to find that same sort of connection when I’m in a more positive state of mind. And I’m certainly open for collaborations—been playing bass with an industrial noise metal project called 8 Hour Animal, we did a short West Coast tour last summer which was great. Playing that style was totally new to me, and it was a fun challenge to push myself as a musician to play that style and understand the compositions. Playing with other musicians and connecting with them is a great and rewarding pleasure, hope to be able to do it for the rest of my life.

-Dave Wolff

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