Craig Leon :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Composer, producer, and conceptual artist Craig Leon spent the ’70s helping to launch the careers of some of the most exciting and boundary pressing artists in rock music: the Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads, Suicide, and dozens more. But in the early 1980s, he released Nommos, a synthesized speculative epic that imagined the sounds of the cosmos. Inspired by the mythos of the Dogon people, a Malian tribe with a vast cosmology, the record stands as an electronic masterpiece. Rhythmically intense and celestially-minded, it was collected and re-issued alongside its 1982 follow-up, Visting, by RVNG INTL as Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, a spaceways parallel to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

This year, Leon and his musical partner Cassell Webb have returned to the sound worlds of Nommos and Visiting with the Anthology of Interplanetery Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon, seven new recordings that, like the original albums in the series, blur the distinctions between minimalism, electronic folk, and New Age music..

Leon joined Aquarium Drunkard from his home in England, where he was game to discuss his roots in rural Florida, the blossoming New York experimental scene of the ’70s, and the conceptual framework of his interplantery sound saga.

Aquarium Drunkard: What was the first kind of music you learned to play? 

Craig Leon: I grew up in a household where my mother was musical. My father wasn’t too much, but he was a big fan and a record collector. They discovered I had a talent for classical music. That was the first music I ever listened to, my father’s hand-me-down records from his collection that I used to play on a little record player. I was very active as a kid, especially late at night. I’d sit and play this record player [listening to] the classical records of the 1950s: things on the American Angel label; the British EMI labels; von Karajan’s Beethoven set on RCA;  Beethoven string trios…Wanda Landowska playing Bach. I then started to listen to things on the radio. I’d started to study the piano, really really young, when I was four or five.

AD: What role did the radio play a role in introducing you to new music?

Craig Leon: Around that time, ’55 or ’56, I’d listen way up on the dial. You hear this a lot from people who grew up in rural America, and I grew up as rural as you can get, in a swamp: When you’d go up the right-hand side of the dial in those days, you’d get either country music or R&B and blues music. There were a lot of live concert broadcasts on those stations and DJs who were also musicians. You’d get Howlin’ Wolf as a DJ, things like that. Late at night, you’d get a clearer signal. Way down in Florida—we were on the water, so it was very receptive—you’d get stations from all around the Caribbean. Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica. You’d get things like the Grand Ole Opry, out of Nashville, WSM, you’d get the King Biscuit Flower Hour, a blues channel. You’d get BB King playing live on the radio.

So the first record that I drove my father crazy to take me to the record store to get was Howlin’ Wolf. We had to order it because I lived in an area that was segregated. I hadn’t learned yet to go across the tracks to where the cool people lived—which were mostly black people. But on our side, the so-called honky side, I guess, you had to order Chess Records. So he did, he got me “Smokestack Lightning.” I grew up with a very schizophrenic background, which shaped exactly what I do. I saw no difference between Beethoven and Howlin’ Wolf. It was all music and it all sounded great. And I heard nothing [dividing] country or R&B or rock & roll. Early rock & roll was starting to come out at that time. You’d hear Elvis Presley and the major record companies’ attempts to copy R&B songs and get extremely lame, white-ass versions of them. So I grew up listening to everything, but I was primarily [interested in] this link between classical music and blues and country music.

AD: You started playing music, working in studios. Eventually, you found your way to New York City. How did you land at Sire Records?

Craig Leon: I had this tape [I shopped around] and I ended up working for Sire, which was the label that one of the guys I knew was actually the co-owner of, Richie Gottehrer. I was basically Richie’s assistant. The first thing I did was help him with a band called Climax Blues Band. It was a British blues band, but he said they’d forgotten the blues. I knew a lot about blues…I used to go out and look for 78s growing up, because nobody wanted them. So I was charged by him with indoctrinating Climax Blues Band back into the blues. Back to mono, back to Charlie Patton.

AD: You were there right as the punk explosion began. As you got into A&R, were there specific qualities you’d look for in a band regardless of genre?

Craig Leon: First of all, it would be if I liked it, and if there might have been another person in the audience that liked it. Then also, if I thought they had something funny or serious to say. That was a prerequisite; it didn’t matter what the genre was.

AD: In other words, you were drawn to artists like distinct points of view? 

Craig Leon: Things were very segregated in terms of sounds, and clique-y. People who liked West Coast California sounds didn’t necessarily like hard rock; R&B bands didn’t necessarily like folk music. It’s not now—one of the beauties now is that, because of the internet, everything’s accessible. You can flip through any genre. People don’t know anything that’s genre-specific. They’re not like that anymore to a great extent. They’re more like I was as a kid: “Whatever it sounds like, it’s great.” But in New York, most of the people who congregated in the Lower East Side were like me too, both philosophically, looking at esoteric reading materials and alternative lifestyles, and into art and participation in the alternative arts and music and writing scene. It was a very closed group of people. It was small.

It didn’t explode until much, much later, when the attitude of it was co-opted and taken over to England by Malcolm McLaren. The British bands had big hits in the UK and in Europe with the attitude of some of the bands from New York. But in New York, it really was very insular and very small. You’d go see—at CBGB’s or Max’s or Mothers or one of the other places people played—you’d go to see Talking Heads and there’d be a paying audience of maybe ten people, maximum, but the rest of the audience would be people from other bands and artists and whoever was around in the neighborhood. A lot of the bands came out of art school. That’s what drew me to that scene. And at the very underground of all of that was electronic music—I was fascinated by electronic and synthesized sounds.

AD: Who were you moving alongside in those circles, in the underground of the underground?

Craig Leon: Well, they’re not so underground now thanks to the internet. Everybody knows who they are. Éliane Radigue, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad—the ubiquitous ones. John Cale, and then his band, the Velvet Underground. It was all the same circle of people. They were bordering between the rock scene and what you’d call the installation scene. There were other people like Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Karen Finley, the performance artist. There were tons of people like that. One of the easiest to listen to was Annette Peacock—she came up through jazz with Carla Bley and Paul Bley.

All these people played in a radius of about twenty blocks. It was in isolated enclaves, but eventually, people would venture forth. Way uptown, the early hip-hop stuff was happening, and that was bridged by some of the downtown New York bands having a great affinity for some of that music. To me, that as just a modernization of the blues. It was all folk music to me—literally music by people for people. [Laughs] Most of it was intuitive, which falls into what folk or rock would be, but a lot of it was people educated in planned music, what people would call classical music, who then mined the same area, the subconscious plane.  

AD: You produced the first Ramones record. I take it those guys came from the farthest place away from a prepared music background.

Craig Leon: The Ramones were definitely New York, listening-to-the-radio, rock & roll oriented. 

AD: When I listen to that record, it’s clear that they were interested in pop music, girl groups, in almost recreating the Wall of Sound approach with minimal instrumentation. Was that how you heard them early on? 

Craig Leon: It developed as we started working together and as I got to know them even more. When I first saw them, they were like performance artists. It was one big blur of a song—it expended so much energy that it just kind of blew up, and that was the end of the set. That was really exciting. Rock had gotten less communicative, very corporate, and very flabby right before then. For me, it was back to the stuff I heard on the radio as a kid.

AD: Did Suicide feel different? Clearly, there are very reverential nods to rockabilly and early rock & roll there, but there’s also a very caustic, avant-garde angle too. Did you recognize that at the time?

Craig Leon: They were much more in the avant-garde scene than just about anybody else. They were older than the other bands, particularly Alan Vega. He was an NYU student in the ‘50s. They were an art project. Marty Rev put out a very obscure record recently called Demolition 9, it was on a very short-lived label I started a couple of years ago. It had 34 one-minute songs [inspired by what he listened to] growing up. That will tell you everything about the roots of Suicide.

AD: In 1981, you and your partner Cassell Webb released Nommos, a beautiful album of synthesized music that imagined what the music of an extraterrestrial race might sound like, on Takoma Records, John Fahey‘s label. How did you end up working with that label?

Craig Leon: I knew John’s manager really well and knew John secondarily. I got to know him as a result of Nommos and everything. It was a totally independent label, run by him and his manager, Denny Bruce. If it was known at all, Takoma would have been known as an acoustic guitar-focused American roots label. John was a blues collector, a 78 collector like me. He’d do the same thing: he’d go driving in his car and pick up boxes and boxes of 78s people were throwing out. He’d buy 200 records for a dollar, and get home and 150 of them would be Chess and Sun—I’m not exaggerating. But John wasn’t only that. He was a pioneer in electronic music…he recorded some records for Vanguard Records. He dabbled strongly in musique concrète and tape loops. Not necessarily synthesizer music, but [he was working in] a lot of the areas people in New York were working in. He also placed synthesizer artists on the label, so it wasn’t out of the question for him to put out Nommos. He had Joseph Byrd, he had one of the guys from Beaver and Krause, if not both of them. He was always interested in it.

He told Denny to go get someone to do a newer synthesizer record, because synthesizers had progressed. And lo and behold, we were able to get four-voice polyphonic synthesizers around that time. They’d progressed quite a long way since the old batch bay things. Denny also managed Jack Nitzsche, who was Phil Spector’s arranger and a film score composer, who was playing around with a very early synthesized sound system, Fairlight, which was actually a digital system, it wasn’t analog. It was multi-voiced and very, very complicated to use. It was being used for film scores and Jack didn’t want to bother to make an album. He was too busy making films. Denny knew that I knew synthesizer stuff and asked me if I had any ideas. So I came up with one, and that was the album we did for Takoma. 

AD: Nommos and its followup Visiting, which were combined for the re-edition The Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, diverged widely from the sonic palette people likely associated you with. 

Craig Leon: But all the punk people really liked it. 

AD: When you made it, were you aware of the burgeoning New Age musical movement, people like Steven Halpern or Iasos?

Craig Leon: I knew the names, but I didn’t really listen to that. I thought of New Age music as Windham Hill, something like that. I wasn’t that intrigued with it musically, but the ideology [was interesting]. Nommos is a kind of supernatural fiction thing I put together, so that appealed to me, and it always had. It appealed to a number of other people on the New York scene. It wasn’t far fetched that we were intrigued in the same areas as New Age artists, but I myself didn’t know those artists. I didn’t like most of the New Age music I heard. I do now, but not then. It was quite alien to the music I was listening to. It was intuitive music that was sort of having pretensions toward being classical and ethereal. It was basically not classical enough for me.

If you wanted to count John and Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke as “New Age,” yeah, it was really cool. But I don’t think you counted them as that. When people were lumping things together, those guys were lumped into traditional folk, whereas you’d get somebody like Michael Hedges, who was more known as New Age. The only reason I knew him was because he was the caretaker at a house I stayed at in Mendicino. He lived next door—I got to know his music because he was playing it next door to the house I rented as a bit of a retreat. Is the Paul Winter Consort considered New Age? It’s a genre I really don’t know the roots of…if I know anything, it’s accidental that I do.

AD: It’s an ill-defined genre. It’s an ethos more than an actual style. 

Craig Leon: I’m kind of lumped into it and I don’t even know what it is, so that’s kind of cool.

AD: When you were making Nommos, did you have any sort of classification in mind? Was it related to the furniture music of Erik Satie, or cosmic German music, the kind of stuff derisively referred to as Krautrock?

Craig Leon: It was not consciously like that. I was trying to recreate—in my limited imagination—what the music of another planet would be. But what was called Krautrock, I loved from the very beginning. When I worked at Sire, I wanted Sire to sign Kraftwerk. We couldn’t afford them. I wanted to sign Can. I’d heard them all play in Germany in the early ‘70s. That music appealed to me. I’m thrilled to be playing gigs on bills with Faust and Manuel Göttsching now. [Laughs] It’s brilliant for me. I don’t know if they’re so thrilled to be playing with me, but I am with them.

That was part of it. But I wanted it to be electronic because I didn’t have a budget for it to be orchestral, though I did want orchestral and “ethnic” elements to be on it, we just couldn’t afford it, so I had to duplicate them myself. Luckily I came across this machine called a LinnDrum. Roger Linn had built it. So I could make the drum patterns. They were looped, but I played in very long, strange loops on tapes and then looped them together. 

AD: Neither you or Webb, with whom you worked throughout your career, knew exactly how to use the LinnDrum.

Craig Leon: I had no instructions or no panels as to what buttons did what. 

AD: Did the spirit of figuring it out as you went influence the work itself? 

Craig Leon: Well, it was very similar to the Suicide record. Marty Rev had to make his synths out of other equipment. He didn’t have a synth at all on the first Suicide album—that’s all stuff he rigged together. So I thought, Alright, let me see how this thing works and I’ll use it. What I was doing was insane quite honestly. What we were doing was nothing like what it was “supposed” to do. I eventually calmed down and learned how to do normal loops and tempos and everything. 

But for Nommos, I really liked what I did, which was play everything in at really fast speeds, make a loop on tape, and then stretch it, edit it together, and have it just keep playing. That’s why it’s a bit wobbly sounding, which adds to the actual feel of it. 

AD: Nommos found you imagining interactions between the Dogon people, from Mali, and the water spirits their religious traditions center on, which you portray, in a science fiction setting, as alien beings. Your new album, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon, finds you returning to that framework. What was it like to get back into this story you imagined decades ago?

Craig Leon: It’s a supernatural fiction project really. If it were a book, it would be three or four books in a row, like Larry Niven used to write. The other planet’s music is what you hear on Nommos; Visiting, the second part of it, is then getting into earthly sounds—we’re talking about the Nommos themselves during their sojourn on Earth, incorporating some earth-like tendencies into their own music. Now, this one is what humans get out of that synthesis, going down that line several thousand years later. It’s a very logical progression. If people can bear with me and I have enough years on the planet, we’re going to get to the present day in these albums, and the future. But I don’t know how long that’s going to take. Ideally, it will be four albums overall, to parallel Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

AD: You obviously studied mythic, religious, and mathematic histories as you explored the Nommos idea. But you also refer to the Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music as “speculative fiction.” When did you first become interested in SF? 

Craig Leon: When I was very young, and I  mean very young, I was lucky to have been allowed to have access to my father’s rather large library.  Along with other volumes of supernatural tales, one of the books that struck me was Tales of Horror & The Supernatural by Arthur Machen. The same sort of stories appeared in the popular comics of the time like Tales From The Crypt and House of Mystery. Some were used verbatim. This led to an interest in science fiction as well as supernatural fiction.

Nommos [should be classified as] supernatural fiction. The Dogon myth of the Nommos and their religious and philosophical beliefs intrigued me. As I started studying it more over the years, a couple of books came to mind. One that’s very intriguing is a French book [that collects] talks with the elders of one of the tribes that the anthropologist Marcel Griaule had with a Dogon elder, Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. He just left the tape recorder going [and would ask questions like] “Did the Nommos give you any religious ideas?” “Did they tell you where they came from?’”

That started a flood of information that is basically the roots of ancient civilization, the roots of philosophy, the roots of everything we use in the arts today. I’m not an anthropologist…but [the Dogon] had a very complicated religious system based on numbers. It’s unlike the other African religions of the time, who also had water spirits and such. I did a whole show with Red Bull Radio about water spirit music from Africa, and didn’t play anything from Nommos. It’s not really that—it’s speculative fiction, not factual. It’s not reality. 

If you look at the Dogon philosophy, it’s incredibly close to the religious structure and origin mythos that’s conveyed in ancient Egyptian civilization. That in turn, influenced the whole Middle Eastern area, into Greece and Sicily, which became Rome. That whole thing, about the Orphic Egg…if you look to the video we did for the second track from the album, “Standing Crosswise In the Square,” [director Milton Melvin Croissant III created a] representation of both the Dogon theory of creation and the ancient Egyptian and Greek theory—they’re virtually the same. 

[This album centers on] the mathematical roots of things. Strangely enough, an architect named William Stirling wrote a book in 1897 called The Canon: An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabala as the Rule of All Arts.It sold about 100 copies. I have one of them. Like a lot of people in 1890s, he was trying to come to grips with spirituality in the age of machines and medical discoveries. It was a compendium of everything that unites architecture, the arts, philosophy, numbers, and music. It’s something I started reading again that said, “OK, I’m going to do the second part of the Anthology on the canon of philosophical thought that was conveyed through the Dogon, down to us eventually, and the roots of our Western civilization. 

AD: So you’re talking about combining supernatural fiction with actual anthropological sources? Basically, informed speculation?

Craig Leon: Exactly. The philosophies the Dogon espouse show up and get mutated over time, but [they share a common thread with the] roots of philosophy and what you would call the creative motivation that pervaded everything in our own sense of the arts. Everything that’s in Stirling’s The Canon is quite real: you can build an ancient Greek temple from the formulas in there. Or a medieval church. [It delves into] Kabbalah and numerology. I didn’t really want to dwell on those aspects of it. I’m not trying to give away the secrets of the Masons or anything—he says, laughingly—but The Canon does, the book. Not that they’re very secret anymore. It doesn’t really matter. I wasn’t trying to espouse [anything]—I was trying to keep my story going. [Laughs]

AD: You’ve got these incredibly cosmic electronic recordings under your belt, but also pivotal productions with Suicide and the Ramones and dozens of other important groups. Does anything strike you as a uniting factor, a throughline that runs through your work? 

Craig Leon: Thinking about things from an alternative viewpoint has always been intriguing. Also, having a great deal of fun isn’t too bad either. words/j woodbury

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