Photo by Alex Bershaw

Cinema Cinema embrace improvisation with CCXMD

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New York-based experimental art-punk duo Cinema Cinema has always made unique music, but their newly released fifth album CCXMD is a radical departure from anything they’ve done before. Cousins Ev Gold (vocals/guitar) and Paul Claro (drums) teamed up with noted jazz musician Matt Darriau to record an entirely improvised set of material that was then edited down to an album. The result is atmospheric, noisy, and chaotic, and it sounds like nothing else. In a phone interview, Ev discussed the making of CCXMD.

CCXMD is very different from your previous work. What inspired you to do an improvisational album like this?

Ev Gold: Well, I think one of the key elements contributing to an entirely different sound and direction on this record is that we have a collaborator who contributes to the entire album. He’s actually kind of a member per se for this album, a gentleman named Matt Darriau . He’s a downtown jazz-scene musician, from a band called the Klezmatics. They’re like a world-beat-type outfit. They are a Grammy award-winning act. He also has a couple of other groups that he’s in: Paradox Trio and Orange and Blue. Nonetheless, Matt Darriau is a wind instrument aficionado. He brings his entire bag of tricks along on this record. We had met him a few years ago through a mutual friend.

We got a chance to start a collaboration then, and it was based around just trying to play some live shows. Since he comes from a jazz-world background, the one rule he had was not to plan anything out. He said, “Let’s get together and let the instruments do the talking.” So, we played some shows with him as a guest, and then ultimately, it felt really good, and we invited him to be a guest on our last album, 2017’s Man Bites Dog. He’s a guest saxophonist on three songs. That felt so comfortable, so we thought it might make sense to leave the door open to a fuller collaboration. The reasoning behind the music being entirely different is that we had Matt Darriau enter into the band as an equal contributor. We approached this in a trio format. We went down a number of different roads than we’ve ever gone down before sonically.

You mentioned not wanting to plan anything out. But did you actually set out to make an improvised album, or going into the session, did you really have no plans regarding what you wanted it to be used for?

Ev Gold: We did not go into the studio thinking we were going to record an album that night. When we cut CCXMD, we went in with the intention of bringing into the studio this really intense new feeling and collaboration from the live setting. We wanted to bring it into the studio and see what it might yield. Again, our whole deal when we played with Matt was that we totally improvised. We didn’t plan anything out. That was the rule going into the first jam and the first gig. And that’s where we said, let’s see what happens if we go into the studio with that rule. Let’s just go and conjure what happens in the moment.

We definitely didn’t go in with our sights set on coming away with an album’s worth of material that we felt had value and would be a solid contribution to our overall catalog. We went in just thinking, let’s see what happens. It just so happened that we had this really, really hot, magical session. It was all night, and we yielded two albums’ worth. So, behind the scenes, there is a sequel or a part two. I’m not sure; we might call it CCXMDII to follow that Roman numeral kind of motif. But we wound up having the session yield two albums. So, the release that just came out now is basically the first chunk of that material.

As it’s very different, was there ever any question as to whether it would be released as Cinema Cinema?

Ev Gold: We took our time in deciding whether or not we should actually release it as a Cinema Cinema album. We did feel it was an interesting, different direction than our previous recorded work. Paul and I have kept a healthy amount of improvisation as a part of our actual musical conversation, from the very beginning of Cinema Cinema. We do a lot of improv on stage. We do it as a segue between songs. So, the improv spirit was alive in us before we had ever met Matt Darriau. Also, we have all the sound effects and insane, weird, strange noises that I conjure with my pedal board. I only make those sounds when I’m in Cinema Cinema, and they’re also on display here on this album. I don’t rely on the distortion pedal as much per se, and there isn’t as much of me screaming. The wind instruments take a little bit more of the vocal place.

I allow more of my loud guitars to be quieted to more of a propulsive ground for Paul and Matt to kind of run wild. So, we did not intend on going in and cutting an album. We thought if we got a song or if we got something, we’d be ahead of the game. We wound up with two albums. So, now we’re really excited. Like I said, we felt it was important and vital to release this music and essentially continue to make art that’s important to us, regardless of any outside expectation or any outside idea of what we do. We never want to be in a vacuum or be making something that someone would expect. We can’t waste time doing something dismissible or repeating ourselves. So, we’re really glad that this opens up a new path in terms of the music and the direction that we’ve gone on with the CCXMV album.

How did you approach assembling an album from the sessions?

Ev Gold: We had to comb over the material, a lot. You have to really, really get to the core of what you feel is valuable and what might not be worth releasing. We came away with, I believe, 17 or 18 songs. We broke them down and edited them down and we named them, etc. I believe there were 17 or 18 pieces we were sitting on. And at first, it was kind of like we realized there were two or three that weren’t up to the same par as the others or didn’t have the same voice as the others.

We trimmed that down to about 15 songs. Then it was really a matter of trying to listen to them and finding which ones grouped together in a sequence that would be a satisfying journey for the individual once they pressed play. The music itself didn’t have a vocal narrative or a specific sematic lyrical content-laced mission statement. It wasn’t as easy to place the pieces of music as it is oftentimes when you sequence an album of songs. It’s different when you’re approaching it with improv.

There wasn’t anything that was radio-friendly. We jokingly titled the first single “Radio Ready” because it’s abrasive, insane, crazy, off-the-charts, unhinged and like nothing you’d hear on the radio. It made sense to us to title that “Radio Ready.”

As we were going through all the material, it was really about finding the correct amount of songs, time, and overall vibe of the running program of an album. If we were going to release this, we didn’t want it to just be like something people could throw on and feel like, “Oh, well that was the improv.” We wanted it to be something that would still get its hook in you, even though there weren’t any hooks placed in any of the songs. So, we came across these seven songs. It wound up being 31 minutes in total. It left us with a healthy amount of stuff that we feel good about for the second release. But these were the songs that sounded like they went together the best. They presented the best first look into what we do as an ensemble when we function in the trio format.

Did making the album provide any inspiration for things you’d like to try in the future with Cinema Cinema?

Ev Gold: I think that we definitely touched upon a couple of musical spots in the material that has opened us up to whole new approaches in terms of how we’d like to think about songwriting creation moving forward. I think one of the things that we’d cut to the side was this was a blues-leaning jam. Towards the end of the night, we had gone around the entire spectrum of different sounds. The first half of the night, we didn’t really talk too much. We went piece by piece, letting the instruments talk, taking a break in between, smiling, laughing, maybe having a hug and doing the next piece.

About halfway through, we started to say, why don’t we try something that we feel might be a little bit more choppy or staccato or short? Or, why don’t we have something that feels uncomfortable or why don’t we try something that sounds more genre specific? Why don’t we try something that maybe is bluesy? I personally love the blues. My father taught me guitar, and I fell in love with certain players early on. A lot of the players I fell in love with did some blues, kinda heavy stuff like Richard Blackmore; there is a lot of blues in his stuff.

One of my favorites from when I was very young was Keith Richards, and the myriad blues men those guys can lead you to, like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. So, at the end of the night, we said, why don’t we try something that’s blues. When we listened back, as we were getting the stuff together for recording, we said this wasn’t really our finest moment. Not that we couldn’t wear the blues well, but at that point talking about trying to do the blues was not the same as playing the blues. You’ve got the blues inside you.

When something like that falls to the wayside, it kind of leaves us thinking, hmm, that might not be a bad thing to think about or revisit. So, I feel there’s definitely some basis, some springboard, for what we come up with next that comes from tripping and stumbling during this huge night of improvisation that was captured on tape. When we’re doing the improv gigs, it was like the moments were just passing and we were playing and then it was gone. It felt good, but some parts  maybe didn’t feel good, but that’s all. There’s no real way to analyze what you did. When you go into the recording studio and throw a microphone on it, it’s really interesting when you can come away and say, hmm, we didn’t plan any of that. So, it definitely has been a great learning experience overall for us in terms of new music that we’d like to pursue making and in terms of the overall approach of trusting our musical instincts and not being afraid to be vulnerable.

For more info and Cinema Cinema, visit cinemacinemaband.com.

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I also currently contribute to the Please Kill Me website (based on the book of the same name.) Below are some of my recent interviews from there.

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