An Interview on Music with M. Illness (M. Theroux)

Here’s an interview I did 10 years ago on the latest “M. Illness Project” in San Francisco, after the release of the album, Drumstick Jacket Outcry.

The Music of M. Illness


An Interview with M. Illness (Michael Theroux)
by Scott Doty and Cornelius Mellet
Copyright ©2005 All Rights Reserved

MI = M. Illness
SD = Scott Doty
CM = Cornelius Mellet


CM: Are the lyrical word games on In The Belly of a Whale indicative of a feeling that music matters more than words?

MI: The “word games”, or any lyric for that matter, should be an integral part of the music…I sure as hell don’t expect anyone to understand what my word arrangements mean, so for my purposes, they better sound like just another instrument.


CM: Why form words at all, then?

MI: Ask Joyce.


CM: So it’s the relationship of the sound the words make in the context of whatever you’re going for at the time? I believe it was the same with Joyce, too.

MI: That’s how it turned out – it wasn’t conceived that way – but there’s also a subject to each story, and meaning in every line – although, it may be difficult for just anyone to extract. So, yes, the contrapuntal jiu-jitsu the words impart when spoken seems more important than whether or not they’re understood by anyone.


SD: When did you first start playing the guitar and the keyboard?

MI: I really first started “playing” them last year. Well, I’ve been hammering on boxes with strings for over 20 years, but it really wasn’t until last year that I finally figured it all out.

SD: Are there any rituals that you conduct to put yourself in an “illness” mode for your composition — or are you naturally ill?

MI: Always been a natural thing, I find I actually have to turn it down a bit to be productive. But, I’m from the Don Van Vliet school of, “Play it like your arm’s being ripped out.” And, sometimes, I fear I get a little too close to the genuine dismemberment.


SD: Does that “turning down” involve the use of neuroleptics?

MI: Neuroleptics are ok with me as long as they don’t tell me what to do.

SD: Do you find it difficult expressing yourself with other musicians, and hence, the one-man band?

MI: Naw, just cheaper. There’s plenty of fine musicians out there that could easily do justice to what I’ve composed, but they’re also smart enough to realize their talent can make more money elsewhere.


SD: Imagine you are a bird. Where would you fly to?

MI: Nunavut

MI: Btw, I might start hiring neuroleptics if I were to write seizures into a score. It’s a possibility.


CM: Given enough local neuropleptics then can we look forward to any Illness live engagements?

MI: Uh, I was just handed a memo defining “neuroleptics”, but I think it’s wrong. Yah, I’d like to take it on the road provided there’s enough interest to see a live Illness show. The road is a tough scene, but getting a band together that could handle the intensity required wouldn’t be too much trouble provided there were certain motivations. I’ve found that employees will do what you ask if you pay them.


SD: Some of your chords are missing a 3rd — what possesses you to do this?

MI: I don’t focus on losing the third, or any other specific degree of a standard chord structure, but I do like using a lot of 2 note chords embellished by their respective octaves, and incorporating them into non-standard chord progressions.


SD: Can you elaborate?

MI: For instance, I can do just the 1 and 5 (dim or aug), or the 1 and anything else, or even begin on a different degree such as the combination of just the 2 and 6 – which also makes the tonic ambiguous, and defies any preconceived key signature, which I feel often allows me greater flexibility within the generally accepted restriction of finite linear movement in a composition.


SD: Were you always this Ill?

MI: I’m getting better – the voices are using shorter sentences and delivering more valid information now.


SD: Do you find it difficult to concentrate on the music, when it is emitting such Illness?

MI: I rarely concentrate on music, I just let it blow – if it sucks, I shitcan it, if it’s good I keep it – simple really. If everyone else thinks it sucks, but I like it, I keep it anyway, and remix it +20dB.


SD: Tell me about these voices — do they participate in the creative process?

MI: Sure! And what’s the difference if you receive epiphanies from something you hear or something you see? Those that see their epiphanies are called visionaries – I guess that makes me a “listenary”. And, as long as I don’t believe my dog is imparting the wisdom of the Past Masters to me, I see nothing wrong with it. Moving on now, what I’ve gleaned from the characteristic polyphony of these “listens” is that there’s a simple recipe to be manipulated when employing an amalgam of elements in the sound-palette to direct the shape of the time-canvas in a non-linear fashion – so that key segments of the composition become multidimensional and rhythmically counter spatial – analogous with the electrical phenomenon of standing waves. Concisely, the formula is comprised of the difference between the horizontal travel of the melody, verses the vertical movement of the harmonic content, and the added dissociation of this combined melodic and harmonic infrastructure driven by the calculated articulation of the rhythmic element – that’s what I’m often attempting to produce. And, although it may seem a contrived process, the finished entity never seems to sound lifeless or mechanical.


SD: Of the following, which do you find most important: pitch, rhythm, loudness, or timbre?

MI: None of the above. Sandwiches are all that matter.


SD: What are some instruments you like to use?

MI: I’m primarily, and unfortunately, another goddamn guitar player. It’s not a fun instrument to compose on – quite clumsy, in fact. I prefer composing on the piano, but I’m not that good a player to perform with it. Within the last 10 years, I’ve started to focus on the bass – mainly the double bass (upright), and soon I hope to do away with everything else that has strings save my bass viol.


SD: Some of the acoustic guitar work I’ve heard on In The Belly of a Whale almost sounds like a different instrument altogether. Are you using effects?

MI: No electronic effects, but lately, I’ve taken a liking to threading an oud plectrum thru the strings of a gut-strung guitar near the bridge, as it produces a similar tone to an “mbira” (an African thumb piano). You can hear it on Bojo Jolie Toejuice Hoedown, and the rhythmic ostinato on Infirm Group-Soul Breadsticks.


SD: So do you compose soley on the guitar and piano?

MI: Normally, I just hash out new material on an instrument I’m comfortable with. But, if I’m in a mood, I’ll write out the golf clubs from what I hear in my head as a starting point, and go wherever that leads me. But, I really only started to do this recently in case there was ever an opportunity for someone else to perform the work.


SD: Do you use a computer editor for jotting down those “golf clubs”, as you say?

MI: Yah, I use the same old box-of-obsolescence for everything – recording, writing, chatting, surfing for Gina Lollobrigita galleries….


CM: Has the Western music scale been wrung dry?

MI: Hell no, and I think those that feel that way have only a rudimentary understanding of what they’ve accepted as the definition of the “Western scale”. If by “Western” you mean “harmonic”, then there’s still plenty of uncharted territory.


CM: How well tuned is your ear? Do you find complex Eastern melodies enjoyable?

MI: Yes, I’ve studied Indian Classical music, tabla specifically, and I’m also a passable oud player. I have a fair grasp of many a raga’s rhythmic structures, and am also very familiar with the quarter-tonal relationships of the Arabic Maqamat (their traditional sets of note patterns). But, let’s explore this silly “East vs. West” thing a little. Recently, there’s been some fine output blending the two forms, but there’s been many more complete disasters.


SD: Disasters?

MI: Let me explain. Middle eastern music has a highly developed sense of melody using microtonal intervals – intervals that do not harmonize well thru key modulations common in western harmony. It all goes back to the battle between just intonation and equal temperament, which I won’t elaborate on here, but for the sake of brevity – the justly intoned scale is derived from natural pitch – the equally tempered scale was invented by falsely adjusting it so that the human ear is tricked into accepting modulation across key signatures – a necessity for Bach’s modulation-happy fugues. Before equal temperament, the closest one could get to key modulation was using a Picardi third at the end of piece (the popular Renaissance technique of ending a minor composition with a natural third). So, obviously, the two temperaments don’t play well together – or at least not without great difficulty.


SD: So, are you saying that the blending of Eastern and Western music should be avoided?

MI: No, no, not at all! Actually, the careful blending of the two seemingly antithetical musical paths is where I see the future of music headed – where the new discoveries will be made. There’s a movie by Tony Gatlif called “Vengo”, which opens on a scene of two groups of musicians – one group flamencos, and the other, Moors – who laid the foundation of what later became flamenco – flamenco’s forefather. One harmonic and non-linear, the other melodic and linear – it has great moments.


SD: Do you see such discoveries stemming forth from algorithmic approaches to composition?

MI: Nope. Schoenberg already covered that, and just try listening to the output. For more than a few minutes. Messiaen’s “Livre d’orgue” is the same way – algorithmically derived – and it’s obvious. Performing virtuosity can sometimes overcome these algorithmic mechanisms, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort.


SD: What do you think of Frank Zappa?

MI: Zappa was one of the great 20th century composers – and now that he’s dead, he might get more recognition for his compositional genius. Dog Breath Variations rules the toads of thee short forest.


CM: Do you listen to hip-hop?

MI: Yah, I do “hip-hop”, but let me sidestep here – I detest genre classifications – most music, aside from traditional folk ascriptions, has been given labels solely for industry classifications designed to help “consumers” of “product” (not “listeners” of “music”) decide what to choose from the limited menu of the latest breast-augmented underage teenie-pop strip-tease queens.


CM: Hip-hop, however manufactured, meaning urban music with elements of rap, soul and R&B. What I was getting at is the issue of sampling.

MI: Ok, I say get a Rio or some other flash-memory player that records sound, and a cheap mic so you can do your own sampling – that said, I wouldn’t mind at all if my shit was sampled and used for whatever – just means I’m probably far ahead of anything they’re doing. And, yes, I have used a few samples not of my own making – but I’ve altered them so much that they’re completely unrecognizable compared to the original, which makes them new.


CM: I remember when the portable samplers came out in the mid-80s. Metal was everywhere and we couldn’t see the possibilities. Our outlook on sampling was the same as the old Xerox Parc guys that thought a PC would only be used for recipes. Having been an avid fan of less traditional noisemakers like Ligeti and Varese, did you immediately understand the possibilities of digital sampling?

MI: I got introduced to sampling via the brilliance of the Mellotron – an electronic instrument with a tape recording and playback head for each key on its keyboard – the original sampler – entirely analog.


CM: When was that?

MI: Sometime back in the era of the Mahavishnu Orchestra – Jan Hammer used one – 1973-4, I guess.


CM: Pre-Miami Vice Jan!

MI: Yes, pre-Grammy Jan. I guess he caught the biz fever and made some dough, whatever, good for him.


CM: Did such exotic musical taste isolate you as a teen — which you weren’t more than in ’73 — or did you still have enough of a Rock-n-Roller left in you to get by?

MI: Yes, I was isolated, but I had my own closet in the attic. Eventually, I even figured out how to unlock it from the inside. Seriously though, I listened to everything – Black Sabbath, Robert Johnson, Elvis, Buck Owens, Miles, Bach, Vivaldi, Howlin Wolf, Stockhausen, Ligeti, etc… it was either music, or it wasn’t to me. Hell, in the 60s and early 70s, sitcom themes had more musical character than a lot of what’s topping the charts right now. One of my favorites was the theme from “I Dream of Jeannie”. The bridge in that piece is brilliant. I think Hugo Montenegro composed that. Now there’s a name you never hear anymore. Look that monster up sometime.


CM: How was that diversity received by your friends? “I’m just going to pop out the Sabbath and throw in some Ligeti”. Were you a bit of an oddball?

MI: Oh yah, but there were a few others into the same stuff – mostly as novelty tho – like Beefheart – he was a huge novelty to many – but my first listen to him was like hearing the sound of one hand clapping – upside my nappy teenage haid. No one since has even come close to what Beefheart was doing.


CM: How were you introduced to the Blues at such a young age?

MI: I went to the public library and checked out and old album of Son House – it flipped a giant knife switch on in my soul – like, “Holy shit, this is what I’m talking about!”.


CM: I did the same thing with a Horowitz’s recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 when I was 16. Were you already playing guitar when you borrowed the Son House LP?

MI: Yah, I played a little – I went to a Christopher Parkening recital when I was 12 – that’s what inspired me to take it up. I found the old country blues cats a couple years later – born outta trouble – as I was confined to home for some mischief I’d done, but was allowed to go to the library for a couple hours a day. I spent a lot of time in the library growin up.


CM: Whenever I hear from you, there’s always stories about “the best axe you ever heard” and such. And then when I hear from you again, the axe is gone and you’ve found another once-in-a-lifetime guitar. Do you consider that sense of discovery and wonder and adventure the embodiment of what you bring to music?

MI: Of course – all a part of the improv side of music – meaning do it with whatever’s at hand – given the right time and place – and then move on to the next thing.


CM: When I think of you, I think of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling vintage instrument shops with a Tesla coil in his pocket in search of the perfect J45.

MI: Hehehe…I used to be that way. Now, I just use whatever is laying around – whatever’s left of my oddball collection of instruments. Might be time to dig out the old Tesla coil again.

– finis

All of the music composed for the M. Illness Project can be listened to here:


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