Μultidimensional musician Mark Bingham talks about New Orleans, Blues, Xenakis, and Ed Sanders

“The cliche is that the Blues is a feeling and yes, to me D'angelo is the blues, A Tribe Called Quest was the blues, even Amy Winehouse was the blues.”

Mark Bingham: Music gone beyond, gone altogether beyond

Mark Bingham was born in Bloomington, Indiana, is producer, composer, musician and engineer. In 1966, Bingham was signed to a publishing contract with Elektra Records. After a brief stint at Elektra in Los Angeles and one single ("Deep Regret/Your Problems and Mine") released on Warner Bros., he returned to Bloomington where he attended Indiana University. There he joined the avant-rock group Screaming Gypsy Bandits and also began his own indie label, Bar-B-Q Records. In 1975, he moved to New York City, forming the Social Climbers with bassist-singer Jean Seton Shaw and keyboardist, arranger and composer Dick Connette.

In 1982, he moved to New Orleans. He started The Boiler Room recording studio and in 2001 opened Piety Street Recording. Bingham has produced records for Flat Duo Jets, Glenn Branca, Dr. Michael White, Ed Sanders, Rebirth Brass Band, John Scofield, Cubanismo,  Mem Shannon, and poet Andrei Codrescu  among others.

A longstanding colleague of Hal Willner, Bingham participated in a series of Willner tribute recordings, including 1984’s That's the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, 1985’s Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill and 1989’s Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. He also played guitar and contributed compositions to Allen Ginsberg's The Lion For Real. In 1991, Bingham arranged horns and strings on R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. He has released 2 albums under his own name; 1989’s I Passed For Human and Psalms Of Vengeance from 2004 which was not released until 2009 due to complications from Hurricane Katrina.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe your philosophy for the music and what characterizes the sound of Mark Bingham?

I have no personal philosophy. Change rules. I am not important, have no status, no career. This interview is the longest span of time I have spent on media in decades. Music is enough.

When I write music I attempt to allow whatever comes through the mind to come out and I edit after, choosing what gets presented to the world (or not). Embarrassment is definitely a part of it. When I collaborate with other people on their music I try to merge/mindmelt with my collaborators. Most of the time I keep my personality out of their music and help them get the sounds they are trying to get. It's a healthy balance -composing/service. I make sounds but I have no "sound".

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music? What is the best advice ever gave you?

Many great teachers over the years... some helpful quotes; Harry Wilkinson (Grand Ol' Opry drummer and once with Larry Coryell and Screaming Gypsy Bandits) "I don’t care if it's a shitty tune, make it cook."

Iannis Xenakis "if you want to make conversation, talk." and "when you play an e chord loud enough on an electric guitar you hear all the sounds in the universe." and the best advice, from anonymous: "if you want to be a composer, take a vow of poverty right now. Learn to cook, continue to educate yourself and learn how to live well on very little. Learn many jobs related to music; player, singer, arranger, engineer, producer. This will allow you to write music and also interact with other musical humans."

"There are people who play from the heart, transcend cliche' and expand the language, even if calling it Blues tends to mislead."

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Don’t find another way to make money. Play and practice and do the music you like.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best moment right now. Worst; realizing the music biz was not for me at age 19, that I would never be in that club. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Are there any memories from Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg which you’d like to share with us?

Ed is both meticulous in his use of language while doing endless research on history and… is also spontaneous, vulgar and uses language in a easily digestible way. Helping make the final installment of Johnny Piss-off was an honor. I remember seeing Ed do a reading and I realized he spoke so slowly he could have been the president of the Slow Talkers Of America, an old Bob and Ray skit.

Allen - maybe every second he was alive has been commented on by someone. I remember really enjoying a gig at Tramps with Allen in, uh, maybe 89 or 90, playing my Casio synth guitart very loud, doing a rave up Kral Majales with Joey Baron killing it on the drums. I also recall Allen ordering a "festive fruit plate" at vim and vigor on 57th Str. at a late night meeting with Willner. I don’t think those things are mentioned in any biographies.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from poet, novelist Andrei Codrescu?

Andrei - 20 years ago we recorded his weekly NPR pieces - sometimes at my house or in the studio, wherever. The NPR people were so fussy about sound; they wanted everything to sound like a broadcast mic in a dead room… This did not sit well with us, so we began recording in places like my laundry room or in the kitchen - just to see what they would accept or reject... of course they had no real standards, just people trying to keep their jobs. Eventually we make a fairy tale with music piece for the NPR Christmas show called Valley Of Christmas, which aired in Dec 25, 1997. By the end of the piece, there are no humans left on earth.

The Christian listeners were angry that NPR would run such blasphemy and used their power to write thousands of letters to NPR, which they had to- by law- respond back. Before e-mail, so we cost NPR many thousands of dollars in postage. I never worked for them again. They cut way back on Andrei as well, as the US moved to the right.

Which meetings have been the biggest experiences for you? Who do you admire the most?

I have had bad experiences meeting my heroes. If I had to rate music by the character defects of those making the music there would be few people to listen to. I admire Kidd Jordan for staying the course into his 80s, for being a musician not a fame whore like most of the "known" celebrity musicians.

Which memory from Hal Willner, Hubert Sumlin, Little Freddy King, and John Sinclair makes you smile?

I'm afraid the Willner memories have to remain un-speakable for the sake of the future of humanity.

Don’t remember anything about working with Hubert Sumlin except thinking that he didn't play like he did in '63 and he wasn't really engaged.

I see Little Freddie King riding his bike in the neighborhood. We just made a 45 called Great Balls Of Butter for the Caracara label. Freddie and Wade Wright (his long time drummer) make fun records- most of the time one take, always live vocals, no fixing. They accept what they do and don’t engage in studio "enhancement".

I can do a spot on John Sinclair impersonation. On a WWOZ radio show I pretended to be him and listeners called in to talk to him and didn't know it was me instead. Our out of print cd with Andre Williams called "fattening frogs for snakes" from 2001 was one of the weirdest sessions I've encountered in 47 years of recording. Andre wins the prize for changing his mind most often and giving the musicians contradicting instructions until everyone involved was utterly confused. John did his part and watched the action.

                                                          Mark Bingham and John Sinclair. Photo by Patti Perret

Why did you think that New Orleans (music and culture) continues to generate such a devoted following?

I don’t think there is such a thing as New Orleans music anymore- outside of tourism marketing. People all over the earth fall for marketing. Since the 18th century, New Orleans and its culture have been consistently defined by outsiders for their own economic interest.

We do have a healthy live music scene here at a time when many American cities have hardly any live local music. New Orleans musical offerings are far more diverse than what is sold around the world as "New Orleans music". Remember that "tradition" and "preservation" started as an economic concepts and that things only need to be preserved to keep them from rotting. A living musical form has no need for Preservation.

What does the Blues & Jazz mean to you and what does offer you?

Blues and Jazz are important but meaningless words anymore... Music is too vast and too global anymore to define styles, although, of course, we try to define anyway. Blues can be almost anything but mostly what is billed as blues in 2013 are people singing like angry bears backed up by fuzzy guitars playing at too fast tempos that don’t groove.

Maybe everyone should read Deep Blues by Robert Palmer and go back to listening to Wolf and Muddy to remember what happened, what Blues was at one time?

Jazz is now more of a college sport than an art form. I will listen to Monk forever but I couldn't tell you who is who anymore in alleged jazz. Most well known jazz players I know are psychopaths and most managers and lawyers of jazz musicians seem to be petty criminals with egos as big as their artists. The Jazz business has become organized crime minus the organization and the money. Maybe it was better when organized crime actually was the boss?

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues and Jazz are always with us. Why do think that is?                                      

Jazz and blues mutate taking on influences but remaining ensemble based. There's a kind of jazz- in the USA at least- that is pre-Bitches Brew jazz, which is what is taught as classic authentic jazz in fancy music schools and has made jazz something of a museum genre. Still, people will always advancing the language outside of academia and there will always be Kidd Jordans and Archie Shepps to go against the grain and teach jazz that is more than All Blues, Blue Monk and Ornithology and a sea of fast playing over 2/5/ 1 changes. I still listen to Charlie Parker- probably once a week.

The cliche is that the Blues is a feeling and yes, to me D'angelo is the blues, A Tribe Called Quest was the blues, even Amy Winehouse was the blues. People may think of Keb’ Mo as the blues while disregarding blues roots in hip hop and funk and brass bands and in some cases, even indie rock and WPSIE music (stands for "white people singing in English"). Taj Mahal has done many musical adventures in his life but remains a bluesman. Rod Piazza carries on a great harmonica tradition. It's all music to me. As trombonist Craig Klein once said, "There are 2 kinds of music; good music and bad music and I like both of them."

(Photo by Tom Hays: Mark "Turkey Hand" Bingham, Screamin' Gypsy Bandit)

You stayed around the US: Indiana, L. A, N. Y, and New Orleans. From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the local scenes?

Indiana had a great music school with 5 good orchestras, lots of blues and jazz and bluegrass bands coming through town and many live music venues attended by locals. We could hear great artists on a regular basis, learn from teachers who cared about us -plus, being students or post students in a college town, we had time to practice and hang out and think. The live music scene in Bloomington died with disco and never really returned to its former glory becoming instead an indie label/hipster hot spot.

NYC in the 70s/80s was still an evolving place where money was not yet the ruling force. NYC scene was amateur/art damaged on one side and professional on another. Hard environment. When I moved to NYC in 70s there was one blues club- Dan Lynch? I think that was the name. Most of the jazz and new music happened in lofts and at parties. By 82 I had had enough of the scene.

New Orleans has always had (until recently) a populace that was musically skilled via school bands, churches and the tradition of being able to groove, dance , keep time, etc. This started dying in the 80s thanks to crack, Reagan, hip hop and cut backs in the school music programs. And many more reasons too deep to go into in an interview. Despite all that, I will note that there are now more young brass bands than ever. Second lines and inner city culture are struggling to exist amidst the wholesale takeover of NO by outside interests and the gentrification that is bombing the city in 2013.

NO is now a transplant city, another globalized place relying on myth to promote what is no longer there. People come to NO to see ghosts. The more humidity the more ghosts.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Sure, there are people who play from the heart, transcend cliche' and expand the language, even if calling it Blues tends to mislead. You just don’t see many creative musicians at Blues festivals or getting Blues awards. The "Blues Business" is also a closed shop business run by pimps. Makes we wanna shuffle on out of there. But I can go out any night in N.O and hear real blues in 2013 plenty of great players left. Walter “Wolfman” Washington! Brother Tyrone! Most of the Blues made by young people takes advantage of the form minus the vibe. Hearing The Black Keys may lead young listeners back to J.B. Hutto and Sam Lay and Blind Blake and Washington Phillips just as Frank Zappa gave his listeners a shopping list of his influences.

What are you miss most nowadays from the 70s era and how has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

I have never really thought of myself as part of the music biz. When I started, everyone in the music biz loved music-even the janitors... that certainly changed! In the 60's/70s I had time to practice, to write and time to fail. Now I have responsibility.

The record label as "tastemaker you could trust" started to erode in the mid-70s and you could no longer trust Elektra, Atlantic, Columbia, Warners, King, Impulse, blue note etc. to deliver inspiring artists. The next layer of A+R were more about power and money than music. Now that's all gone as well.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Xenakis, Jazz and Blues treasure and with your projects and beyond?

The density/intensity credo of Xenakis lends itself well to the recording and composing of popular music of all sorts. while "the Big X" , as we called him, shared John Cage's dislike of conversational and call and response forms, he loved overall sound form that moved the listener... the mysterious "what comes next" that is cell structure in every art form (and in human conversation for that matter but don’t argue that with the Big X) and even ABBA has that and the Big X was capable of grooving on bubble gum music and loving Chopin while making his remarkable pieces that had little to do with history except he knew the "what comes next" that keeps the listener amazed while the composer attempts to kick ass and move the language ahead.

What from your memories and things (photos, records etc.) you would put in a "capsule on time"?

Nothing. Nothing I have ever done is original or interesting.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

When I'm asleep.

Happiness is……

Enough time to….

What is your music DREAM?

I lived my dream and as I get older I try to avoid what Ed Sanders calls The Gimp Zone and keep making work every day. Adding more sounds to the slag heap of music.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Diving off the limestone cliffs in the quarries outside of Bloomington. One of my few brave acts.

What are your hopes and fears on the future of music?

That evolving music will somehow continue on minus the need for celebrity worship and focus on dollars and fame and media that have swallowed all that is holy in sound making and reduced everyone of us to show biz drones. There's the beauty of toiling in obscurity that goes unappreciated in this era.

What made you laugh lately and what touched (musically) you?

Laughter is my favorite drug. Just re-read Snow Crash and that made me laugh. Of course, I also think Bob Dylan is a comedy writer so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask. Yesterday heard a Ralph Carney/David Greenberger cd called OHPA that had great funny Ralph pieces and David's narrative made me laugh. Beethoven doesn't make me laugh. I've been on a Bill Evans kick lately.

Piety Street Recording - Official website


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