In the Twin Cities underground jazz scene, if you dig just two more inches, you will hit solid gold. One of those jazz bands is the newly formed Toni Wolff's Dream Wedding. Subtle, yet intensely dark, the band's new self-titled album brings us jazz with a hint of punk. The songs tease with the prospect of lyrics, but they never arrive, yet they are never missed.
Before the band's cassette release at the Acadia on Friday, Gimme Noise spoke with the effervescent drummer Dan Choma, who also plays in EMOT, about who Toni Wolff really was and how he interprets jazz music.
Current, rotating, and future members include: Daniel Choma, Evan Bierer, Ben Kelly, Nick Gaudette, Bree Melechinsky, and Mike Vasich
Gimme Noise: Who is Toni Wolff, and what would her dream wedding include?
Dan Choma: Toni Wolff was a famous psychologist and Jung analyst. She perfected the concept of the Anima: The subconscious mind in all of us where our repressed or just not expressed feelings go to hide. Without her, we would likely not have Joseph Campbell, the Meyers Briggs test, or Carl Jung's famous Red Book.
Wolff was a lover of Jung's who was eventually accepted by the Jung family and wife Emma as Jung's "second wife." Toni and Emma were even seen accompanying Carl to parties towards the end of Toni's life. Wolff's was determined to never wed, so officially speaking, her dream wedding was "no wedding."
That said, I think her bridesmaids would be named Eve, Helen, Mary, and Sophia. She would be smoking as she walked down the aisle, inevitably.
How does she inspire the band?
Like most of the good things in my life, I stumbled into the name Toni Wolff's Dream Wedding through happenstance and reckless tomfoolery. My creative writing teacher of a few years back exercised terrifically bad judgement and passed me some essays about the subconscious mind.
One paragraph led to another, and I got to envisioning jokes about the stuff I read on Wikipedia while I was supposed to be paying attention in class. I thought it would be hilarious and sophomoric to have an album cover where Toni Wolff's face was taped over Emma Jung's in the Jung's wedding photo. So I made the cover, took a picture of it with and iPhone, and started writing/collecting charts.
Turns out that the joke was on me; in an appropriate Freudian slip I had accidentally named a jazz punk band after a brilliant woman who had discovered how our spiritual mind works.
How did you all meet?
I played drums in modern dance classes for Nick's wife Maggie for a few years at SPCPA. Maggie introduced me to Nick through a special piece she created last summer called "Leaver's Ball." Nick and I had been itching to play with each other ever since. I first met Evan through a gig that we did with mutual friend and pedal steel player Mick White. It was with a jazz gig featuring Mick's compositions alongside covers of artists we like such as Halloween Alaska and Haley Bonar. We had this cool creepy name (Quiet Client), but I dug that band, short lived as it may have been. Evan and I have been threatening to play together for years since then and the stars have finally aligned. Mike Vasich I met through Nick, they play together in Orange Mighty Trio.
How do all of your other projects flavor this band? Had you played in jazz bands before? How do you feel a jazz bands differs from your other bands?
I've been very blessed to have gotten to play with some really great musicians over the last ten plus years of my life. Although this is the first time in my musical career where I've gotten the opportunity to play pure "jazz" music, I don't think that the skill set is all that different than other bands I've played in.
In Emot, a great deal of what I do is arranging and supporting with subtle textures -- although let's be real, I do get to lay back and roar in that band too. Playing with Matt, Justin, Bobby, and Jim has given me a wider understanding of what the drum set is capable of tonally. I had a similar experience when I played bass in Junkyard Empire and with Jeffrey Simmons.
You pick up tricks in the musical conversations you have with your band mates. You learn from each other. When it all comes down to it, music is always about using your ears and communicating in the moment. Whether it's slo-core, hip hop, jazz, or indie rock, musicians are still drawing upon the same skill set to express emotion. The genres are only really useful if you want to trade something of natural value like music for something of perceived inflated value like capital.
When there are no lyrics, how do the songs come together? Is it essentially a jam session?
I think that people have this misconception with language, that it's somehow more important as an organizing force than it actually is. We're taught in school that it's all about either math or literacy. Don't get me wrong, I dig on math. I like to read. I love well-crafted lyrics, but there is always a danger with the written word that it can become masturbatory in it's definitions: a slave to propaganda or ideology.
Put a quarter in Joe Horton of No Bird Sing and watch him go on this idea. He explains it way better than me. I think writing instrumental music can free your mind from trying to create an ideological opus as some grand monument to ego, tradition, the patriarchy, or whatever. I think instrumental music has always played a pretty solid joke on academic ideology by creating a whole counter tradition based on sheer visceral experience.
Think if I was describing the last strike out of a baseball game. If I were to describe it linguistically by saying "The hated ugly Yankee skipper Joe Girardi sent Mariano Rivera to the mount to deliver a knock out blow to the beloved adorable home town Twins," then you automatically don't like Mariano Rivera. He's the bad guy. By the nature of my own personal bias as a Twins fan, my language implies morality to the story I am telling. You think, "The Twins are the good guys, that Rivera guy sounds like a real jerk." Now imagine if all you could hear of that last strikeout were the sounds. Since I never described and defined it, all you could experience was the crunch of cleats on dry October sand, the terse silence in the air as a light grunt hauls a rush of wind into the dull thud of leather. In a split second, a crowd erupts around you in still drunk joyous cacophony. It doesn't matter that whether you like the Twins or the Yankees or whatever your prior of the whole experience is, that moment sounds beautiful. That story is timeless.
Ironically, my process of creating pure sound instead of lyrical music is fairly similar. Instead of taking a musical idea and waiting for lyrics to form around it, I take a musical idea and just form more musical ideas around it. For example, when I wrote "Sheldon Brown," I first recorded a pedal tone. From that drone, I sang the first melody I came up with. I transcribed what was there into music, formed a chord structure around it, cleaned up a bit of the notation, and presented it to the band for rehearsals.
The discipline of preparing music was still there, it just never touched ideology. It skipped directly from idea form to a saxophone. In my opinion, there's an importance to this visceral traditional that can't be overemphasized. Jazz isn't just a bunch of musicians jamming, it's art in motion. Considering that no artist, author, or thinking person has ever been able to stop the river of time with a clever definition, perhaps it's time we stop trying to define things and just get a more disciplined idea of what being in motion feels like.
Do you feel that with jazz, you either get it or you don't? Is there ever a middle road?
I don't think that jazz is different than any other form of music, really. The way we process music is subjective by nature. That's kind of the point of music. Music either moves you or it doesn't. Some days I love the radio and the sun seems to shine through the windows in tempo to the music. Some days I wanna tear the speakers out of their frames the moment I flip the switch on and hear the sounds. It's subjective analysis. This is no bash on radio. Music by nature is experiential, so it is defined by the moment in which it lives.
That said, the way we process music, art, and the world around us viscerally is intensely influenced by our education. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in Blink when he says how experts are the people who are able to be aware of their own bias. So obviously, indie rock is well understood with college kids who haven't been exposed to intense jazz education programs but have been exposed to required reading lists. It's vocal. It has language. It has implied morality. It's their area of expertise. We are accustomed to analyzing this because that kind of analysis is what our western culture and education has prepared us for. I think it's terribly important that we find a way to rectify this shortage in our education systems. Instrumental music gives the listener a language devoid of definition: It's pure experience. There's a reason Bukowski loved Stravinsky. There's a reason Amiri Baraka dug Thelonius Monk. The music inspired them but allowed them to define their own ideas. Listening to and being educated by non lyrical music gave them carnal fuel with which to shape their individual identity and ideology. The world is better for it.
In this world of social media group think, we could use a bit more fuel for individuality. We can't really expect to have people "get jazz" if it isn't something that folks are given access to. Beyond that, we can't really expect people to form their own opinions and ideas if all the visceral creativity they hear is chock full of linguistic morality.
Who is Sheldon Brown, and why did you record at his bike shop?
Sheldon Brown was a bike mechanic, essayist, and photographer. He's passed on now, but his website is still the de facto place to begin learning about how to fix old bikes. As I have dug into riding my bike and making sure the "Go" and "Stop" functions are working properly, he has been a great inspiration to me as a mechanic and a human being.
I volunteer at Lowertown Bike Shop to pick up where Sheldon Brown's essays left off. As much as I would love to say that I've become a fantastic mechanic strictly based on reading articles on the internet, it's just plain not true. Trained labor has irreplaceable value, and learning how to do something with an expert over your shoulder saying, "Hey Dan, don't do that, You're gonna break it," is beyond valuable.
After bringing my broken frozen bikes to Lowertown for a year, I began to "volunteer." Realistically, I wasn't very useful at first. Mainly they were teaching me not to break things. (I'm much better now. My bikes don't have squirrels living in them.)
Who knows, maybe someday I might even be a pretty good bike mechanic. Right now, I know that I go to a place every week where bikes get fixed and people talk about Sartre and Proust while listening to Gojira. I'm good with that.
I didn't really say I was a musician for a while. I just enjoyed truing bike wheels while listening to Immortal Technique. Honestly, it feels good to focus on making a bike wheel true as an artistic venture. But music still hasn't quit me, so eventually I worked up the courage to ask to record a music video.
Is cassette the new vinyl?
Not really. Vinyl is still expensive to print. It's gorgeous. It sounds wonderful. I feel cool ice cold when I stand in front of my vinyl collection. But it's tough to justify printing a run of a thousand copies of something if you don't think you are gonna make that money back. Cassettes have always been beloved in experimental and punk circles because you can make a short run of some weird cassette and not have to take out a second mortgage or eat ramen noodles for the next three years.
The medium enables people to take artistic risks because you can just make 20 tapes and call it a day. It still has that natural warm compression and that light hissy noise. It just doesn't cost you an arm and a leg to do it. I love running my cassette label, (Run Ruby Red Records) but I would be lying if I said I did it for profit.
Making cassettes doesn't make me a lot of money. It does, however, allow me to make the records I want to make without having to kiss up to anybody or pretend to like some sleaze bag who has been in the music industry too long. It enables me to live and create honestly. Frankly, I would prefer that 30 people hear my cassette and hear an honest rendition of me rather than me having to spread myself thin going bankrupt over a 300 date tour, a hectic promotions schedule, and a social media identity melt just to move 3000 units (maybe) to people who know music as "that one thing that's always in movies and television." Making cassettes frees me from letting profit make decisions for me by default.
Why the Acadia for the album release?
I love the Acadia. I'm excited to have a bunch of great other bands play with us, too. Sleeper and the Sleepless have these harmonies that just make me feel stupid gleeful. The Hood and the Lyre is raw, honest songwriting. Craig Weatherhead leads a good old fashioned stompin' good time. It'll be a fun time, y'all should come out celebrate with us, the West Bank will be hopping that night.
Tony Wolff's Dream Wedding will release their self-titled album at the Acadia on Saturday, June 14, 2014 with the Hood and the Lyre, the Weathered Heads, and Sleeper & the Sleepless.
AA, Free, 9 pm
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