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All innovation is recombinant evolution [2002-02-24]

The Californian duo Ben Wa thusfar recorded two CD's on which respectively expanded the horizons of dub reggae and electronic funk. Allthough obviously aiming at these particular styles they didn't allow themselves be confined within the boundaries of the tradition.

In this e-mail conversation I had with both members, House and Dr. (Eric) Ware, they tell about their ongoing journey in the world of electronic music. But first we check the past to see where they came from:

m[m]: Why did the Limbomaniacs split up and what did you do afterwards?

H: The Limbo split was due to ego problems, plain and simple. Brain, drummer and chief choreographer, thought that his dance routines were not given enough presence in our live show. MIRV, director of buffoon affairs, felt his contributions to the overall concept were diminished by a group decision to only sing every other song about doo doo. Pete sought solace in the bottle after many years of deep seated Synclavier problems. Following the break up I wandered from one city to another, working odd jobs as an ice sculptor, pet therapist, and internal organ masseuse. With dashed hopes and failed dreams I returned to the Bay Area to pursue the truly meaningful calling of electronic music production.

m[m]: How did Ben Wa come into existence?

H: Dr. Ware sat at his computer in an office building pretending to work. I sat at my computer a few cubes away pretending to work. One day he said he played keyboards. I said he should come over to my studio and play some keyboards. He came over and played some keyboards. And that was the glamorous beginning of Ben Wa. Quite an exciting yarn eh?

m[m]: What were Dr. Ware's previous occupations?

H: Amateur gynecologist.

m[m]: Are you strictly a bassplayer in Ben Wa or is it something that just depends on the situation.

H: I'm more a programmer than a bass player. Most of our time is spent in front of the computer or mixing board. Butt sometimes we conceive grooves by jamming in the studio, whereby we have a beat to riff off and we each play whatever we want at any given moment. We'll just start messing around with an instrument- guitar, synth, kazoo, whatever. With bass, half the time what comes to mind is not a bass guitar but a synth bass, and Ware is just as likely to come up with the part. So no, I don't consider myself a bass player in Ben Wa, but I dig it when I get a chance.

m[m]: Your CD's and vinyl sound remarkably good. I read some articles by Dr. Ware about sound that were very scientific. Did he study something along those lines?

H: We spend alot of time working with our equipment to get the most out of it, which is a challenge because most of it is not exactly high end. It can take alot of tinkering to get stuff to sound half-way decent. As for Dr. Ware, he's a goddamn electrical engineer and he worked as a studio engineer before I met him, so he knows a thing or two about sonic content and such. Hey, he just walked in eating a shwarma. Let's ask him...

E: Yeah, I studied engineering in school. The relationship between music and science has always been an area of interest for me. My senior project was building an analog vocoder. Particularly in electrical engineering, there is a lot of study of "signals and systems", and the signal types are particularly analogous and much of the time directly applicable to musical signals: audio is a very good example of an area of application of this type of mathematical discipline. Electronic music is a great medium of expression for someone with sort of a scientific bent, because a big part of it is sort of designing instruments that are essentially some system, and then hitting it with signals to see what happens. This occurs on many levels, and part of the game is to be good enough at the theory to be pretty quick to put together a system that will work like you want it to work. It's funny because the last sentence could roughly be applied to the thinking that goes on when an improviser structures a solo. You can and should, take it to that level too, where the musical composition itself is a system, or follows an algorithm, and is complete and makes sense as a working system.

H: Um, ya. They don't call him the Dr. for nothing.

m[m]: Both your CD's had a strong retro-aspect, some people might argue you're recycling old stuff. Would you care to protest? What's your view on 'innovation'?

H: I think of music more in terms of evolution than innovation. "Innovation" is a perception which happens when people hear something that includes a mutation of influences they are not familiar with. If you look at almost any musical style it's possible to trace its development, who added what to what to create a particular hybrid, whether its Rock and Roll, or Funk, or Electro-Funk or whatever. But when that hybrid gets transplanted across cultures, or distance, or even time, it seems (temporarily) brand new. That's part of the tongue in cheek theme of Retro-Tech, it points a finger at the recycling of genres, but at the same time it includes it's own kind of recombination, which is the really the essence of how all art is made. If you are a musician, whatever you hear is likely to turn up in what you make to one degree or another, and how those elements are fused together is what creates "style". We wear our influences on our sleeve as a kind of kitchy joke, but the twist is how the old is added with the new. Basically we compose mutations, just like everybody else.

E: Yeah, I agree with what House is saying. To add to it, I would say that every human is an individual who has a completely unique experience to everyone else. This of course includes the musical journey that we go through in a lifetime. I believe the way that influence works is that we hear music and some aspects of some other artists work resonates with an aspect of one's self, and the process results in one learning who they are musically. If one follows their musical self as idealistically as possible, they will be a unique artist with a sound all their own. Still, this sound has sources in things that came before, so it's not, and nothing can really be completely original. A great game to play is to try and connect various facets of one artist to another and I'm convinced that eventually you'd end up with a unified web. You could take two artists who you might think have nothing to do with one another, a "funk" artist Prince, and a "folk" artist Joni Mitchell, and still find a direct link between the two. This happens all the time. And as people become open to more and more styles, there is more interconnection as time goes on, and that is what keeps things interesting.

m[m]: Both your albums pay tribute to a specific musical style. Is this the purpose of Ben Wa or just a coincidence?

E: Well, yes we did set out to make a "dub" record, and an "electro" record. No doubt about that. In one sense since we're sort of early in our existence as Ben Wa, this could be viewed as a way to exercise aspects of our "chops" as composers and producers. However, even in these exercises we are also consciously attempting to put in other influences and perhaps juxtapose some thing on there that would make it something original and new. I think that as we get better, and through these exercises find a vocabulary of our own, we can be bolder about making statements that are unique to us, and doing so more with better articulation. So I would hope that our albums become less like "a study in genre x" and more like "a musical statement of Ben Wa."

H: For me this is another influence of alot of my favorite records that not only contain a sense of humor, but also jump from style to style quite a bit, like Zappa or Malcom McClaren's Duck Rock. I think our cd's do the same too, Retro-Tech is not an "electro" album, and Devil Dub is not a "roots" album, but they experiment with their respective influences widely. To date we have gathered tracks that create something of a theme to create larger works, kind of like Sinatra's "saloon" albums versus his jammin' big band albums. You dig one or the other depending on what you're into, or both and play them to match different moods.

m[m]: Do you consider for instance The Neptunes, Timbaland or Dr. Dre electro or electro funk? Or is electro more a folkloristic thing bound by strict rules, defined by tradition (and therefore a 'retro' thing in itself). Technically it's funk and it's electronic so...

H: Hmmm, this is an area I usually try to leave to journalists and high falutin' scholars to sort out, but to me electro was funk and latin rhythms programmed on cheap drum machines and synths. That might be an oversimplification these days, but that's how I first heard it. I know there are now rules for almost any genre and sub genre and sub sub genre, but someone else will have to define them. All I know is that the mutations continue. I'm kinda hoping they will stop someday, and music will be "done". Then we can move on to the cool stuff, like genetically engineering a Platypus head onto a Giraffe's body. That's going to be the new art, and personally I can't wait...

m[m]: What do you think of the current status of music. Artistically, but also how for instance the internet made a lot of musicians more independent of big record companies.

H: The current status of music is pretty big and diverse. If you mean "pop" music, I don't pay much attention to it. I don't know what the latest boy band is or what dance moves Britney Spears is doing. Most of the stuff that comes through the major media is produced by multi-national corporations with cross-marketing strategies to sell soda pop to teenagers. It's the musical equivalent of Videodrome. But there is more alternative and underground music happening now than ever before, and the internet is expanding it further. The web is now like having a listening kiosk in your house, you can check out just about anything if you have the patience to search for it. Unfortunately most musicians still have to make records, which means you have to deal with distribution companies and figure out how to tell people that your records exist (publicity and promotion) or (yikes!) you gotta get in bed with a record company directly. The DIY attitude of the Punk movement has probably had a more profound effect than the internet to date because it really established independent record production and distribution. Hopefully the net will develop the ability to sidestep some of the nasty elements that still linger...

m[m]: Do you prefer to work on vintage instruments or are you more into new gear?

E: Both have a plus side an a negative side, so I prefer to use a mixture of the two. I must say that I'm very impressed with some of the new instruments in hardware and in software virtual instruments. There is so so much stuff out there, and each thing is so complex that it seems impossible to really dig in to each thing and know it as well as I know some of the older synths. And so it's scary, because you can just play around forever with these things and lose sight of the goal. I guess a way of making music now it to just tweak knobs on this crap for hours, record it, take the bits that sound interesting and then make larger pile of them. The end result you will have no friggin' idea how you made it.

H: Yeah, the danger is to become an equipment weenie, where you spend all your time reading magazines to buy more gizmo's or plug-ins to then read more manuals to figure out how the hell to get everything to work together. The best part about old equipment and instruments ("old" is pretty damn relative here) is you can turn them on and make music instantaneously, and making music is what it's supposed to be all about anyway. It's getting to the point where you could define "old" as anything that you actually know how to use (of course not knowing how to use something can be a lot of fun too.)

m[m]: Did you do live shows with the Retro-Tech material?

E: We used to play alot. We have performed some of the stuff from Retro-tech. Each live show of the past 5 or 6 at least have been "one-offs", and each required us to put together an immensely complex rig as well as basically program some 70 minutes or so of music into it, and then of course get the choreography down. Let's just say that we would love to go play some shows, but we'd like to get more of a bang for the buck in terms of young-ass-shaking minute versus pre-production hours spent ratio. Read: we need a good high profile tour.

m[m]: What would a Ben Wa live show look like these days? Would you play both dub and electro in one show?

H: Our shows have included both dub and electro breakbeat stuff in the past. We've done gigs where we've played two sets, one up and one down, at different times of the night to match the mood of the club. We don't know what it would look like now because we haven't played in a while, but it would probably involve pink tutus and watermelons. We want to explore more dynamic use of the computer in performance, that much we know, but we haven't experimented much with it recently. Hopefully we can get on a tour one of these days and get a chance to fart around, literally, with the possibilities.

m[m]: You got the chance to work with famous dub-producer Scientist for a Devil Dub live show. How was that and how did that come about?

H: Our publicist at the time and San Francisco's Dub matriarch DJ Sep introduced us to Scientist, and she ended up putting the show together. He came to see us open a show for Laswell's Praxis band, and I guess he dug what we were trying to do.

E: For one thing it was a lot of work on everybody's part. It was a modern miracle that it ever actually went off, to think of it now. It was also the loudest fucking show I have ever heard. Scientist wanted a new system for the club. We wanted scientist to be happy - he was great to work with and real thorough. He was inspecting the power mains for the facility, you know where the power comes in off the street to make sure it was beefy enough and not prone to fault. I assume if it didn't pass the test we'd have had generators! Let's just say that the system they brought into the Justice League (the venue in San Francisco where they played, ed.), a medium sized club would have easily sufficed for a pretty large outdoor event. To put this in perspective, the old MAIN PA was pointed inwards as side fills for the band. But it was fun, 'cause I was helping Scientist actually stack the mains, and thought he's probably done similar stuff in Jamaica when I was still in my didies. (He's real hands on when it comes to the system. He knows his shit, and doesn't necessarily trust that others do. I figure he's run into a lot of incompetence in his day.) Anyway, that said, when House played a low note, the stage vibrated so intensely that you had to get used the the tickling sensation on the soles of your feet. In fact, amid this chaos one of the power strips for my rig (including just about everything - sampler, computer), vibrated a connection loose, so I had to troubleshoot that, find a power strip, and reboot while the band improvised. I thought the show was prematurely over, but we made it through the whole thing.

m[m]: Will there be a Devil Dub live CD?

H: Sorry, there are no plans to release that music. But it can be heard on our website: http://www.benwa.net/listen.html

m[m]: Is Ben Wa strictly a duo or would you like to do more collaborations?

H: We look forward to more collaborations, but we made a conscious decision to make a couple records strictly as a duo (although our favorite percussion player Adrian Isabell usually comes in to hit on some tracks). When we work with other musicians like on Devil Dub, the two of us put the whole thing together on the computer, editing and massaging the improvised parts to make the tracks, so even there it's still the two of us doing all the production.

m[m]: Who are your biggest musical heroes?

H: That's a big question so I'll just list a few of the biggies: Miles Davis, James Brown, George Clinton, Prince, Sly Stone, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Massive Attack, Trevor Horn, Bill Laswell, Iggy Pop, Frank Zappa, The (English) Beat, Scientist, Lee Perry, Black Uhuru and Christopher Cross.

E: Um, well Christopher Cross, Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Thomas Dolby, Talking Heads, The Police, Prince, P-Funk, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Mad Professor, Scientist, Pete Scaturro and the Limbomaniacs.

m[m]: Speaking of Zappa: aren't you in some Zappa tribute band with some other ex-Limbomaniacs? Any recording plans?

H: Yup, we've had a Zappa cover band over the years called Ca Ca. No recording plans there, those records already exist!

m[m]: You never made a secret of your love for porn. Would you like to score porn-movies? If so, what would it sound like?

H: Yes: It would be a sample collage of a pile driver and a whoopee cushion.

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