Benjamin Lyons runs the independent label Valid Records, which has released recordings by artists such as Rob Wagner, Jonathan Freilich, and Hamid Drake. Recently I spoke with Lyons about his early musical influences while growing up in Pennsylvania, his thoughts on the music scene in New Orleans, and running Valid Records.
DG: What are some of your early musical memories, when you were growing up in Lancester, Pennsylvania?
BL: Family lore has it that I was fed a steady diet of Mozart while in the womb, and that as an infant, Mozart string quartets were a reliable way of calming my tantrums. My parents were big fans of classical music, especially chamber music, and my father was a very accomplished amateur violinist. My other early musical memory is of the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer, which might explain everything (or nothing).
DG: Did you play music when you were a kid?
BL: Yes, I started on the cello at age 6, but I was not particularly gifted, and I got almost nowhere after six years of study. For one thing, I couldn’t figure out how what I was being taught related to the rock and roll I heard on the radio.
DG: So you listened to a lot of rock and roll when you were a kid?
BL: As a child of the Sixties with older siblings, I was raised on a steady diet of Beatles and Stones. My first experiences of African American music was at mostly through the filter of the British Invasion.
DG: How did you first get introduced to jazz?
BL: My father was a fan of “noncommerical” jazz, which to him meant small group New Orleans style as opposed to the smooth big band sound that took over in his salad days (i.e., the 30’s), so I did get to hear some Louis Armstrong. In the early 70’s free form commercial FM radio still existed, and WMMR out of Philadelphia further expanded my musical education by introducing me to English folk rock, reggae, blues, and even the Velvet Underground. The only jazz I was aware of was the popular fusion style of the day, which I found sterile and boring (and still do.) As a teenager I did get a chance to hear in person a great group consisting of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Venuti, Roland Hanna, and Major Holley–probably my first introduction to mainstream jazz.
DG: How did your musical tastes evolve when you went to college?
BL: My arrival in college coincided with the late seventies punk explosion, and that held my interest for the next few years. I attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which then as now as a strong jazz program as well as world music program, but the dominate style among the students was the fusion sound (or that is at least how I heard it at the time), and I found it really square. From punk rock I fell into record collecting (early punk rock was in a way a revival movement — a revival of the pre-LP sensibilities) of earlier forms of rocknroll and especially R&B.
DG: What are some recollections that you have of the music scene in New Orleans, when you moved there in the ’80s?
BL: At that time New Orleans was still caught up in a weird 50’s/60’s time warp, with a little bit of New Wave and free jazz thrown in for good measure. The “stars” of classic New Orleans R&b were still around, and they were beginning to revive their careers waylaid by the Beatles and disco and other disasters (including D.A. Jim Garrison’s crackdown on vice, as described in Dr. John’s book). The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began to gain traction on the national stage, and there was a revival of interest in roots music. But there was not yet a consciousness of “New Orleans music” as a genre or market category. New Orleans was so far outside the national market for the most part that there was tremendous freedom to be yourself. Wynton Marsalis and all the “young lions” were just getting their start; there was a sense that New Orleans could be at the center of things again, but the rigidity that later came to define the commercial exploitation of New Orleans’ music was not yet in place.
DG: What were some artists that you found particularly interesting, at that time?
BL: Some of the music that impressed me the most included the brilliant pianist James Booker and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Booker was the inheritor of the now almost dead New Orleans’ piano tradition and a rather crazed and troubled genius. He died in November of 1983, but I did get to hear him several times before that, performing his brilliant, heart-breaking, and multi-layered boogie-woogie based improvisations for an audience of 3 or 4 souls. The Dirty Dozen updated the traditional brass band format with their knowledge of the language of bebop. They were a phenomenon in the African American community; their weekly gig at the funky Glass House taught me what it really meant to rock the house. The whole modern brass band tradition, which now incorporates funk and hip hop sensibilities, started with them. Later, I began to listen to Kidd Jordan when I could.
DG: What were some of your initial impressions of his music?
BL: I had a hard time really hearing him at first, but by sticking with it, I began to get a handle on how to really listen. New Orleans also afforded me the opportunity to befriend a whole extended community of musicians, and I’ve learned so much from all of them.
In college and after I had served as a research assistant for sociology professor Philip Ennis work on rock and roll, which was eventually published as The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music. As befitting a sociologist, Phil’s work was bounded by empirical data — recordings and their chart positions defined the “streams” of popular music and the social apparatus that surrounded them. In New Orleans, I was introduced to a live music culture and a living oral tradition. New Orleans has given me is the opportunity to hear music in mostly unmediated situations and as a fundamental element of social life, not as a thing sequestered in a concert hall or on a recording.
DG: How did you get the idea to start Valid Records?
BL: By the late 90’s, I was immersed in the “creative” or “free” music scenes in Chicago and New York. I started to make annual trips to the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Vision Festival in New York. I realized that among my friends there were some young talents with just as much to offer the world as many of the minor “names” I would hear elsewhere, but as long as they were stuck in New Orleans without exposure in the world, they would stagnate. My rather naïve idea was to help them get their work out. Also, I was interested in creating a higher standard of recording than most musicians I know were inclined to create on their own, either because of lack of funds or indifference to the recording process.
DG: Who do you work with, to record Valid Records projects?
BL: I’ve always hired ace recording engineer (and musician, producer, poet, and philosopher) Mark Bingham to record my projects. I believe he has done a terrific job in capturing the specific sound and context of the music and musicians. Anyway, my initial idea was to record some sessions and then find someone to release them, but by the time I got going (2000 or so) the independent labels were already in crisis so I had to release the music myself.
DG: The Rob Wagner Trio CD with Hamid Drake and Nobu Ozaki is an excellent recording. Would you comment on how that recording came together?
BL: By the time I released his first CD, Rob had a weekly gig at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, which afforded him a great opportunity to write and perform an impressive book of compositions. That first CD included music he wrote over a ten-year period, but in one year of weekly gigs he had already grown so much and had so much music it was definitely time to record again. Bass player James Singleton (Astral Project, etc. and New Orleans’ leading modern bass player) was a constant, but drummers being drummers, they would always drift out of the picture sooner or later. We were all set to record Rob’s second CD when his current drummer took off to trek the world and study Buddhism. Rob was familiar with Hamid from his time in Chicago, and Hamid was rapidly becoming my favorite drummer from his trips to New Orleans and from hearing him in Chicago and New York. I told Rob I’d ask Hamid if he wanted to do the CD. I talked to Hamid at that year’s Vision Festival, and he was respectful but noncommittal. Over the next four years (and two more Rob Wagner Trio CDs), Hamid had the opportunity to hear Rob play a few times and to hang out, and he committed to the project. We finally settled on recording the first week of September 2005, but Hurricane Katrina scuttled those plans.
DG: How did the project develop, after Katrina?
BL: I hung out with Hamid a bit in Chicago and New York after the storm, and he suggested relocating the session to Chicago. I returned to New Orleans in October. Mark’s studio was already up and running (when we had power) and I convinced everyone that they should come to New Orleans to record. Hamid had a few days available in the beginning of December. Rob, bassist Nobu Ozaki, and Hamid all flew in (their first trips home) on a Monday and played what had been Rob’s regular gig at a packed d.b.a. Hamid had never played with them, but they clicked right form the start. We recorded the next two days. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint had booked the studio (they were paying full national rate so they got priority, even though most of their record was cut in L.A. and the sessions were mostly for the benefit of P.R.). Then we set up the recording session in Café Brasil on Frenchmen Street. We tamed the room with a bunch of carpets, and it turned out to be a very congenial space.
DG: What’s one song on that record that you find particularly interesting?
BL: Perhaps it is not the most interesting song, but the circumstance of the recording of “Freedumb (Aren’t you glad to Vote in America?)” [track 6–the titles of track 6 and 7 were switched by mistake] I found instructive. Rob started off the ballad with bassist Nobu Ozaki, with Hamid to “come in” to the tune when he felt it was appropriate. I always record in real time/space, with the musicians all in one room, set up so they can best hear and see each other–no baffles, iso booths, or headphone mixes. Hamid just sat at the drum kit listening through the whole performance. They were expecting him to join in, but Hamid said he was enjoying listening and that it was complete without his contribution. We tried a second take without Hamid in the room, but without the anticipation of his entrance it felt a little jaded, so we went with the first take. A drummer who can hear when not to play–that is a part of what makes him such a great drummer. And this also illustrates how subtle things can make a big difference.
DG: How did the recently released Frank Gratkowski & Hamid Drake CD come together?
BL: That was recorded in June, during a freely improvised studio concert we recorded in March of 2009, and I have a recording “in the can” of three New Orleans-based musicians that should be released in the fall.
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