Interview with Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, Zs, Liturgy)

Multi-instrumentalist Greg Fox came into Airplay on March 9, and we were thrilled to get the chance to speak with him about the improvisational process, his involvement with Thrill Jockey and the Chicago scene, and plans for a new Guardian Alien record—to name only a few. The text of the interview follows after the jump.


You’re obviously involved with so many projects and collaborations. How do they come about?

It’s all kind of happened over the years, just by kind of going with things as they’ve come up. I had a college band, and that band toured with our friends’ band from Baltimore, I ended up joining that band, and then because I’m playing in that band, I joined another band, and a met a bunch of people that way, so it’s been playing and meeting people and playing with people. It seems like a pretty natural progression.

A lot of your stuff, just from what we’re hearing now, it’s from very intense drumming to electronic drone, how do you see the relationship between all the different things that you do?

When I’m playing music, I like when I realize that I’ve lost awareness of my body while I’m playing, you know? I like making music that has that effect on me while I’m doing it. So, ideally, if I’m drumming, I want to not remember where I am, not to the extent that you forget to play the part when the change comes. Or doing electronic stuff, I know it’s good for me when I stop realizing or stop being immediately conscious of the fact that I’m making music. I think that maybe speaks to whatever kind of similarity there might be.

So along those lines, going into a set, how much of it is planned? Do you have an overarching theme, or do you just go for it?

It depends. Since I started doing this solo drum performance stuff, usually when I play a show these days, I will either just play drums or maybe use the drone stuff with the drums. But besides that, I put it together while I’m doing it, I guess. And then sometimes, I do make composed music also. Some of that stuff is for my bands, and some of it just sort of lays in this ‘netherrealm’ until it either comes out as a solo record or something.

Like Zs?

Zs or Guardian Alien. Or a lot of other stuff. I’m now creatively involved in three or four different projects, and there’s some, I guess, stylistic overlap. I mean if I play electronic stuff, that stuff is planned, that stuff is written. I’m playing something that I wrote. Most of the time when I play live solo, I’m improvising. But I’m incorporating some of this new stuff.

With all these projects, how would you say your approach to drumming has evolved? Do you approach it differently with different projects?

I guess I don’t know if I think about it specifically as far as drumming, but I definitely think about it as far as just making music in general. I think that, in the different projects that I do, I think—and I don’t know if this just stops short of being a music thing—but in my experience, situations are good when there’s something you can learn from the situation or from the people that you’re working with. So I’m not thinking so much about the drumming as I’m thinking about growing as a musician in general, and to me a situation is especially fruitful when I feel like I’m learning or being challenged from or by the playing I’m playing with. So the drumming has changed a lot over the years, definitely, for me. I’m just concerned with learning and with continuing to grow as a musician and as a drummer and just really taking in as much as I can.

So, this is your third time in our studio in not so long. From following you on Twitter and just keeping up with your various projects, it seems like you guys have been touring sort of nonstop. What’s that like? Is that something you’ve done in the past, is it something new?

It’s relatively new that I’m so busy consistently. I’ve done long periods of touring before. I think the longest I’ve been out at a time is like three months or something. But I mean, I’ve been on tour almost consistently since October at this point, and that’s with Guardian, with Ben Frost and with Zs.

You guys have gone not just in America, but Japan also.

Yeah, Japan and I was in Europe with Ben, going back to Europe soon with Zs and then with Guardian again in May. Right now, it looks like I’m touring through the month of June, and then we’ll have like a month off or something, and then there’ll be a lot more stuff because new records will be coming out in the fall and in the new year.

It’s at the point now where, for the first time in my life I’m really fully able to support myself as a musician.

Zs just released a new EP, Grain. I listened to it, it’s really awesome. Do you have any other releases planned?

Well, Zs is recording the next record pretty soon, and I think the idea is that it’ll come out late 2013, early 2014. I have a solo tape coming out on NNA in April. The new Guardian record is going to come out in November. The stuff that I’ve been working on with Ben, I don’t really know when that’s going to come out, but it’ll probably be also late 2013 at the earliest. And then there’s other projects that might happen that I don’t really know about yet.

I’m really stoked about it. I’ve kind of been wanting this for a long time. You know, for a while I was holding down part-time jobs and stuff in New York City and just doing what I had to do when I wasn’t on tour. And it was the kind of situation where I was touring a lot but it wasn’t enough that I could really support myself off of it, and so I was constantly in jeopardy of losing the job that I had or something like that, but the jobs weren’t something I really wanted to do anyway. So I got kind of lucky in that I got fired from this one—for three years I was working as a sound guy at this sort of diplomatic place in New York—and they fired me after three years. Then that two weeks later, I got a phone call from Ben asking if I wanted to do the band and do more recording with him, so it kind of just like happened at the right time. Then came joining Zs and going on tour with Zs. It’s at the point now where, for the first time in my life I’m really fully able to—I mean, in a very meager way—support myself as a musician. I mean, I have debt and all kinds of shit, but I’m on tour consistently enough and my rent is cheap enough and my expenses are low enough that I can—now, because of how I can project in the future the amount of touring that I’m going to be doing, I don’t know how much money I have coming in, but I know I have money.

Well, I’m just wondering, so do you think the big break came with Liturgy or was it when you started doing your own stuff more?

I got a lot of attention for my drumming with Liturgy and we did a lot of touring, and the record did well. I get listed as “ex-Liturgy drummer” all the time. So I know that record had a lot of reach, and I know that a lot of people know of my drumming because of that. But, I don’t know, it didn’t feel like a break or anything like that. When I was in Teeth Mountain, Teeth Mountain was having a relative amount of success, we were touring Europe. And then when I was playing drums with Dan Deacon, it felt like that was successful for me. It’s just been this progression of just it becoming more and more of a reality, that this is just what I’m actually doing, and less a question of “what am I doing?” But now, it’s like now I know what I’m doing. Yeah, I think that Liturgy definitely, for a lot of people, was the way they became aware of my music, but I would say for the most part, the majority of people are definitely not aware of any of my music.

I’m actually kind of curious how you’ve gotten involved with Zs? I don’t know if you knew all those guys before you got involved with the band or how you met up with them?

Well, [ex-Zs guitarist] Ben [Greenberg] actually is sort of a childhood friend. I’ve known Ben since we went to neighboring high schools. I’ve known him since like seventh or eighth grade. And he used to be in a band with some of my friends from my school, and so we would go see them play. And he was really a shredder back then. So Ben and I have been friends for a long time, and we’ve done some playing together. Ben and I were in a band together for a little while, like sort of between my getting out of high school and going to college in New York.

And I’ve known [Zs saxophonist] Sam [Hillmer] for a while, and [Zs guitarist] Patrick [Higgins] I met a number of years ago when his old band, Animal, played at Bard when I was a student there. So I had met everybody and Sam was doing this weekly party at this bar Zebulon that unfortunately closed down. It was the only good bar in my opinion in the world. But anyway, Sam was doing these things, so I was hanging out with Sam a lot more, going to these shows and playing them and he asked me—I don’t really remember how long ago this was—but he gave me a call and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing some playing. And I was like, “Okay, sounds good.” And he was like, “It would be like a thing where we’d write music together,” and I was like, okay, that sounds interesting, you know. And so then, a couple months later, he called me back and he was like, “So that thing I was talking about was Zs.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, okay, that makes sense.” So you know, when he said that Pat was doing it with him, that made sense to me and I knew Ben was sort of moving on to do other things. And I just don’t know [ex-Zs drummer] Ian [Antonio] very well, I’ve met him a bunch of times… but yeah, to a certain extent I wasn’t really surprised by being asked.

I’ve definitely admired Pat and Sam, totally, their playing and their musicianship over the years in different times and spaces. So, I figured, sounds good. You know, Sam called me up and he was like, “All right, we’re going to write all new music together, you’re not going to have to learn any old stuff, we’re going to write new music together, we’re going to go to Europe and Japan, and we have two records like, ready to go. We just have to make them.” And so for me, it was just a no-brainer. So this is just like more touring, you know what I mean, getting into a situation where I’m playing with people who I admire and learning. It’s crazy how busy I am right now because of having joined Zs. But it’s working right now.

I started getting gigs as a session musician and doing some hired gun stuff. I was in a pretty terrible rap-rock band for a while that I was paid to play in.

So you’re talking about meeting all these people as childhood friends, so did you also start drumming at a really young age, and how did you arrive at the style of drumming you’re doing right now?

My grandfather was a drummer. Not professionally or anything, but he had a drum set in his house and you know, he played. So that was an early influence. I always kind of knew I would pick it up at some point, so I started actually playing in like sixth grade or something. For a while, it wasn’t something that I was taking extremely seriously. I mean, I was in bands and I was playing and I took lessons, but I wasn’t really concerned with it as a craft or as something that had a canon or something that I would find myself as a part of historically like with a link to people who play music like that. I never thought of it that way. I guess that playing in bands in high school and stuff, we’re playing a lot of metal, so I started getting into that stuff.

It got really serious with me—I think everything really changed for me with drumming when I got out of college and got kicked out of my parents’ house and decided not to go to college, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I got this job at this music store in New York, and some of the guys who worked there were really fantastic drummers. And they would give me free lessons. We would just be sitting around and they would give me lessons. And some of them would also work as drum techs. One of the guys who I owe a lot of my technique and style to is Guy Licata, who is a really fantastic drummer. And he gave me tons of free lessons. We would just be sitting there and we’d have the practice pad out, and he’d show me stuff and I would just practice all day. He was also studying with drum teching for Jojo Mayer, who’s an unbelievable drummer. So I met Jojo a few times, he showed me some things. A lot of just picking things up from people and meeting people, but that year was when I got serious about it because I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I was just like, well I’m just going to do this drumming thing, and I started getting gigs as a session musician and doing some hired gun stuff. I was in a pretty terrible rap-rock band for a while that I was paid to play in.

So it started becoming something that had a viability to it. And then, when I went to school, I went back to college and I had some bands in college and that’s when I think my music tastes really started to solidify or open up—not solidify, but I opened up to a lot of much further out music than I had been into, and so I think that having a metal background and learning all this deep hand technique and just technical stuff about drumming and then getting into weird music, I think that kind of made this trajectory for me of sort of incorporating all this stuff with involving an openness. I also studied, when I was in college, with Marvin Bugalu Smith, who played with Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. And he taught me a lot about sort of breathing while playing and sort of feeling the tide of the beat and subdividing rhythm and sort of being able to find polyrhythm all the time, which I think is a big part of my style. I studied with Thurman Barker, also a fantastic drummer. And yeah, I’m studying now with Milford Graves, which is like, the greatest honor. I mean, we hardly even hit drums.

I think I’m lucky that I’ve been prodded at all these different times by seemingly kind of random events that have caused me to open up to things. When I joined Teeth Mountain, I didn’t the kind of music that they were making. I had a band with the guy who used to play bass for Liturgy, Tyler Dusenbury, and I had a band in college. And our band toured with Teeth Mountain, because Tyler’s friends with those guys from home. So anyway, Teeth Mountain asked me to join them, and I didn’t get it. I didn’t have a place in my mind for what that was. But doing it opened me up to it, and opened me up to a whole world of music that I just would not have been able to understand—not “understand,” but enjoy. So getting an ear for bands like Wolf Eyes, or Sightings, you know. I love those bands now, especially Sightings, Sightings is like my favorite band. You know, opening up to those kinds of music, or different stuff that’s less traditional, less easy to discover on your own, and at the same time just getting serious about drumming and being in these situations where I was playing weird music kind of created this creative space for me, I guess, where I would start connecting these dots of this technique I had learned, you know, like this molar hand technique for drumming while playing blast beats. And it’s just like, well, I can throw this shit in there. But yeah, these things would sort of happen. All of a sudden I would find myself incorporating something that I was doing in Teeth Mountain or Liturgy… you know, my drum teacher would be showing me some lesson and I’d be playing, and that would manifest as a part or something. And then by getting good at playing that part, I just opened up this whole style that I could get into. And all these things have just sort of extrapolated from each other.

It was a no-brainer for me. I love the way that [Thrill Jockey] operates, so I’m very happy to work with them.

Yeah, that’s amazing. So, us being a Chicago radio station, and you’re on Thrill Jockey, and I loved your collaboration with Man Forever. You’re based in Brooklyn, how did you get involved with Thrill Jockey and the Chicago scene?

Well, when Liturgy was getting ready to put out our second record, we were talking about record labels… I definitely wanted to see about working with Thrill Jockey because a lot of my friends, my Baltimore friends, were doing Thrill Jockey stuff. Double Dagger and Future Islands, you know, I’ve been tight with those folks for a while and that whole Baltimore scene. So a lot of Baltimore folks were getting signed to Thrill Jockey… and I also knew that they did Boredoms and they did Dan Higgs, Zomes, and all this music that I really love. So it’s like, well, maybe they’d want to put it out, and they did. So that how I sort of began my relationship with those folks. And then, when we were making, sort of after we recorded the second Guardian record and while I was starting to mix it, there were some labels who had some interest in the band, and I was trying to see who would put the most pepperoni on the pizza, so to speak. And then I emailed [Thrill Jockey founder] Bettina [Richards], and I just said, “We got this record, we’re almost done with it, would Thrill Jockey want to put it out?” And she said yes… and then that was that. It was a no-brainer for me. I love the way that that label operates, so I’m very happy to work with them.

So I guess my last question is, you’re getting ready to head down to SXSW, is it your first time down there, or what are you expecting from it?

This is going to be my third time. I didn’t go last time, but I went the two years previous. SXSW is like experiencing the zombie apocalypse before it happens. It’s all these people in these vans with all this gear, trying to get this stuff in and out of venues very frantically all day going from place to place. And then you’ve got hoards of drunk people just wandering the streets that are getting in the way of all these people. So it’s like incredibly difficult to navigate and it’s stressful, but it’s a lot of fun, and I like it because I get to see a lot of my friends from around the country who go to South By. Some of them go just because people meet up and hang out there. I mean, Guardian and Zs and some of our other associated side projects and solo projects are going to be playing this—my friend [drummer] Mercer [West], who’s in the band Quiet Hooves and Bubbly Mommy Gun, he’s from Athens, Georgia—he goes down to South By every year and just books a bunch of house parties. And friends will just play every night of those house parties. So we’re playing three nights at these series of house parties. That’s just going to be a lot of fun. We’ll just try to be as chill as possible, and I’ve tried to stagger things as much as I can so that we’re not rushing too much. And in instances where I do have to rush, I’ve made sure to the most extent possible that they have a drum set available, because having to shlep a drum set around makes it a lot harder. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be nice.