MATRIXSYNTH: An Interview with Peter Grenader on The ZZYZX Society

Sunday, June 26, 2016

An Interview with Peter Grenader on The ZZYZX Society

The following is an interview with Peter Grenader of Electro-Acoustic Research (formally Plan b). The focus of the interview is mainly on his involvement with The ZZYZX Society, however you will find plenty of insight into gear, including some of what Peter is working on next. I want to give Peter a huge thanks for taking the time out for this.

1. To start, what is the ZZYZX Society?

"The zZyzx Society is a group of like-minded half-crazy avant-garde musicians/composers who at one time or another fell down the same sonic rabbit hole.

Discussions about this began in 2011. Jill Fraser and I tried to get something together, and the circle of people then included Richard Lainhart. Unfortunately, he passed away when we were right in the middle of talking about possibilities. This is actually when I sketched out one of my two pieces that we are currently performing: Organasm. It settled down until Jill and I ran into one another at Mort Subotnick's live performance at Redcat a couple of years ago. We saw a fire in each other's eyes - a need to return to something that we had both evolved from.

Jill and I are ancient friends. We met at CalArts in - God.... 1977. We actually performed together once with composer Gordon Mumma at CalArts and worked extensively together on Mort Subotnick's NEA project, The Game Room, in 1978. Matter of fact, the photo Mort used for the Electronic Works Vol. 1 was taken when we were doing The Game Room - Jill is the blonde and I'm the guy holding the patchord in the foreground.

What really set the wheels in motion though was a recent dinner we had for Thighpaulsandra when he visited Los Angeles a few months ago. Thigh had been speaking about wanting to do another series of performances together since we both did the AnalogLive gig at Redcat in 2007. Jill was already well into the planning stages, although it wasn't clear who would be involved at that time though oddly enough - everyone who will be was there - Jill, Chas Smith, Thighpaulsandra and myself. When Thigh left for his return trip home - the last thing he said to me was a suggestion to get some gigs going - that it will never start unless there's a date, and when you guys get a set under your belt and are comfortable with what it evolves into, that he would come out and gig with us - and that's exactly what we are doing. Well, we'e actually focusing on tracking a CD, but I'll get into that more in a bit."

2. Can you give us a little background on each member? When the world of electronic music started for each and what they've done over the years?

That's where humility sets in - with the notion that musicians of this caliber would consider me a contributor. Why? Let's start with Jill: after earning her masters in composition at CalArts studying with Mort Subotnick and Mel Powell - her first stop was where I landed: Serge's infamous Hollywood synth production facility on Western Ave. She didn't stay there long, however, because she was hired to compose electronic music by Jack Nitzsche for Paul Schrader's film, Hardcore. This began a 25 year career composing both electronic and acoustic scores for hundreds of TV commercials for huge national campaigns: BMW, Honda, Porsche, Nissan, Mitsubishi, HP, NBC, KFC, Carl's Jr., and Apple among others, and in the process won 3 Clios. She also toured with Buffy St. Marie and auditioned for The Sex Pistols - no joke.

Chas will be the only one among us who people will be speaking about in 100 years. He's also from the CalArts electronic music composition master's program and spent his early days with modulars. Until recently he owned a 12 panel serge system he had had for 30+. His legacy will be the remarkable Harry Partch-esque tuned percussion instruments he crafts. He's shifted to metals exclusively which forge these amazing soundscapes, which would take immense work to generate electronically, yet just pour out of these sculptures. Along with collaborations with Harold Budd he's been released many times as a solo artist on Cold Blue Records, MCA, and others, music for Zimmer's Man of Steal score (they actually did a special feature on Chas for that film), as well as the first two Saw films with Charlie Clouser, for Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whispser... the list goes on.

Man Of Steel Soundtrack - Sculptural Percussion - Hans Zimmer Published on Aug 27, 2013 WaterTower Music

[Behind the Scenes creating the unique sculptural percussion sounds for the MOS Soundtrack

Not sure what planet you'd need to be on not to know where Thighaulsandra's been. Like the rest of us here, his interest in electronic music is lifelong. Stockhausen and Cage were early influences and while you clearly realize his worth in the rock idiom, his experimental roots are unavoidable. Golden Communion - which has garnered stunning reviews in Europe - gives both Gabriel and NIN a run for their money, but you also hear Stockhausen in there and in the string introduction to the title track - Elliot Carter. He began his music career on the other side of the board - as a studio engineer, and this is where he met Julian Cope, who in time introduced him to John Balance - which led to 10 very productive years as a member of Coil - during which TPS began releasing his own solo work. He is a conservatory trained pianist blessed with the birth defect of incredible ability. After Coil he was off to Spritualized for I think three years?

As for me, I am the underachiever. After CalArts and a few small film scores, and a oddly enough a planetarium show for the Griffith Observatory, I put everything down for 25 years. In the early 2000's I found music again and had really good success in the academic electronic music festival circuit. I won the Periodic Festival in Barcelona and was selected for one of the evening performances at the SEAMUS National Conference, which doesn't sound like much, but I was probably the single first-time applicant to land that right. There were 30 or so festivals in the US after that over the next two years including the AnalogLive emsemble performance at Redcat at the Disney Hall in LA with Thighpaulsandra, Chas, Gary Chang, Richard Devine and Alessandro Cortini. The start of Plan B shifted my center to manufacturing, although I was signed, and did a CD for Coda Recordings in 2013 entitled Secret Life.

What I appreciate, especially working with Jill, but it's true of all these guys... our combined experience is such that we finish each other's musical sentences. It's astonishing. Three guys in a garage band and you expect them to vamp off their combined rock tradition, right? But electronic music, are you kidding me? Jill and I started rehearsing with a piece of mine called Benghazi, which is based entirely on a single diatribe of Glenn Beck whining about the attack in Libya. The first day we did what I would call informed noodling. When we started the second day she said she had worked out some other processed bits, and they were phenomenal. It brought the concept into much higher space and with no direct guidance outside of asking for other samples from the source file so not to loose Beck's context narrative. She just got it, completely.

zZyzx Society live in Joshua Tree: BENGHAZI

3. What sort of gear will each member bring to the project? Is there a preference for any?

I can't say for Thigh, dunno yet but he's got an arsenal at his studio in Wales. Jill is primarily using a Push via Ableton and a single Serge panel designed specifically for live performance made for her by Dmitri Sfc. I can name what Chas uses, but it won't mean much as outside of a rack of loopers everything he plays he's made. So for the record it's the Rite, the Replicant and his incredible steel guitar Guitarzilla. I am primarily using my modular - eight rows of it I crammed into two road cases, and then a Roli keyboard using Equator for now, and plans for a proper sampler as the ROli software wreaks Kickstarter deadline. It's fine as a closed synth, but while they say you can import your own samples - you really can't. I had to contact them, and they wrote the code so I could add one specific sample, but are not wiling to help me do more. The keyboard itself however is incredible.

4. What is the collaboration and recording process like? Do you record together or do you pass compositions back and forth for each person to work with separately?

Recording wasn't in the original plan, but that's changed and with Chas moving to Grass Valley - and Thighpaulsandra in Wales it's just like my FB relationship status: complicated. Jill and I are going to lay basic tracks starting in two weeks. So we'll be sending multitrack to both Chas and Thigh, who will be adding to them, then returning the new stack to whomever wrote the piece to do the final mix. The process is identical for Chas and Thighpaulsandra with their works There is talk of a release deal. So... with only one gig under our belts at FUTUREWURLD in Joshua Tree, which was really well received , but we're shifting to recording the four pieces we performed with small gigs during that process, although, all in much more detail than we could manifest live with our hand count. Jill's got one which is actually four individual pieces, I've got Benghazi and Organasm and Chas has Perimeter. Thighpaulsandra is in the middle of one for us now and we're discussing the possibility of rendering Subotnick's Sidewinder.

5. What do you have in your modular system when playing with ZZYZX Society?

At first I brought almost everything. I could basically empty my main cabinet into the two road cases and on top of that I brought the two side cases, but I knew this wouldn't last. After a couple of days of rehearsal when we worked on the two pieces that were modular extensive I identified what was overkill and I limited my modular system to the two road cases (see image). It's eight rows of 88hp.

In the empty space I've now installed an Animodule Midi Gate, which is a brilliant idea and one I was planning on for EAR - but the best man won on that, more power to them for that. With it in that space will be two custom modules consisting of two Sparkfun Wave Trigger boards and a little unity gain mixer. Each of the Wave Triggers will be driven by the Midi Gate. I can use individual keys on my Roli to fire of independent events. Each of these WAVE modules allow for eight polyphonic samples to be played by either the depression of a momentary switch or a gate signal with each group of eight stored on a microSD card which can be loaded on the fly. I see this as an intelligent way of performing with a modular in a live scenario. It's basically what Mort is doing now - assembling the overall sonic contour by playing prerecorded samples as required with a couple of live voices over everything. Very effective and something Mort has been talking since the days I was working with him. It took 30 years for technology to catch up with him. In my instance, I will be playing events I prerecorded on the modular.

6. Does working on music like the ZZYZX Society influence your designs, or do you keep the two worlds separate?

It's had a huge impact on this. Immediately I started thinking about a group of modules called "the live set" which would be a series of devices which would make live performance easier for a modular artist. I don't want to give anything away outside of saying the guy that developed the Wave Trigger for Sparkfun lives a few blocks from me (wink). I've also had a couple of meetings with Vince De Franco, who produces the Mandela Electric Drums whom I met through Danny Carey. If what we're discussing becomes a finished product, it will be a paradigm shift for realization of live electronic music.

7. What's next for you? You were the man behind Plan B, your designs were featured in Subconscious Communications' modules, and you are back with Electro-Acoustic Research. You recently announced the Model 41 Steiner 4P filter. Do you plan to bring back any older designs like the Milton or will you be focusing on new designs only?

The EAR modules will be a combination of new things and legacy re-releases, but none of the old ones will be brought to market now without significant improvements. Not because they were broken before, but because I see no reason to revisit something without making changes. If you go to the next product up is the Model 12 Mark II. It's two M12's in one package, both fitted with the IFM Sync function found on the M41. There are all manners of interconnection possibilities as well, so that two two can be used independently, or in either serial or parallel operation off all output taps of a single signal. If you sweep to the 'Future' page there's also the Model 24 Heisenberg Mark II, which adds a new quantized output to the stepped random and three new inter-modulation/triggering options. The Model 10 Mark II could not be more different than the original. Now two voltage controllable DASR envelope generators (Delay, Attack, Sustain TIME and Release). I have also mapped out a concept for an upgraded Model 15 Complex VCO which will make it the VERY Complex VCO lol. There are as well three new modules all ready to go.

I have been working on the relaunch for four years - since cEvin and I did the Subcon license on the 15 and 37. I've been working towards it continually. The first three products are completely done with a couple of revisions of hand built SMT prototypes behind them - ready to go - I just need to email the data off to Darkplace when it's time and product will appear a couple of months after that. If you watch Thighpaulsandra's excellent Model 41 demo video - next to the M41 you will see the Model 12 Mark II mounted in his system and that's one thing I did differently this time - I skipped the breadboard stage. I now go directly to SMT PCBs with Metalphoto faceplates. This addresses all sorts of potential calamities. It forces me to concentrate on the design stage and weeds out all manufacturing hiccups before they hit the Darkplace assembly line because if there are problems there - they aren't going to pay for that - I am. As my dad used to say when he was quoting new jobs.... "I don't do this for practice".

This brings me to something I want to close on. My father went through the Plan B collapse with me. He knew how hard I had worked to get where I did and he knew all too well what I forfeited. He was a tough love guy and at times unnecessarily hard on me about it. But in the end, I did it and he knew before he passed away. I was ready for the Model 41 a year and a half ago. Darkplace had already quoted it. It could have launched then and would have had he not died. There were delays from his death that the family needed to settle. But as far dad... I built most of the prototypes on his kitchen table because the light was so much better there than on my bench at home. He saw me working on them. He saw the Darkplace quotes. The last thing he said to me was 'I love you'.  Right before that - he congratulated me on getting the company back on it's feet and that I found a way to do it all on my own, and he told me how proud he was of me. After he said this, I left the hospital for the day and he died that evening at 3 in the morning. Nothing was worth the six years I went through and the problems I caused people, nothing makes my father's death bearable - but that moment came real. real close.

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