Originally printed in Copper Press 2003
"Pretension is always unbecoming, but still worth venturing at times. There is an important distinction: taking one's work seriously versus taking oneself seriously. The former is paramount, the latter nowhere. Self mockery is one way to curb the second one." So says Jared Matt Greenberg, alluding to the nature of the music he creates with his cohort, Charles Wyatt, in their San Francisco-based band, Charles Atlas.
This Spartanly elegant instrumental trio was in Seattle recently for a west-coast tour along with the UK's Yellow 6, and headlining act, Ohio's own Jessica Bailiff. To the benefit of those unfamiliar with the musical territories of these three acts, it would be fair to explain that the evening's fare would be restrained and somnolent. But the quality that is often misunderstood as pretension is probably best attributed to a failure in understanding the introspective character of hypnotic acts like these, and mistaking it for highbrow snobbery.
It was a reasonably lovely Seattle-afternoon, sunny and crisp, with intermittent winds. I was along for the ride with Charles Atlas's members Charles Wyatt, Jared Matt Greenberg, and Sacha Galvagna, decisively zipping about the streets of Seattle in a gigantic white Econoline, not unlike Moby Dick on wheels, in search of a dining establishment near the Green Lake district called the Santa Fe Café. Jared Matt and Charles Wyatt, both originally from New Mexico were really looking forward to some proper comidas. Also in our van was Yellow 6's Jon Attwood, who quietly partook of the comradery, the epitome of subdued British demeanor, skirted by a bashful, and fleeting grin. A few other friends joined us for the Santa Fe pre-show provisions, among them Ian Parks, one of Jared Matt=s old bandmates from The Rosemary's days. Jessica Bailiff and her band-mate, Jesse Edwards, traversed off to another restaurant in search of vegan food, and we would meet them later on at the evening=s venue, the Green Room, an annex-cum-bar to Seattle's hip Showbox Club.
We sat around with our chips, micro brews, and devilishly hot salsa, and surmised about the events that were taking place under the early spring-sun. A war was brewing in Iraq, and political topics seemed to be breathed to life by palpable tension in the Seattle air. Indeed, the candlelight vigils on Capital Hill, and antiwar protest signs had spawned numerous conversations about the state of world affairs. However, the members of Charles Atlas were jovial, and wore a great deal of charm and ease on their faces this afternoon, even while discussing grave situations of such magnitude. Anyone inclined to think Charles Atlas are somber introverts would have dismissed that notion just by attending dinner with us that night. Once the topics of war were dealt with, highschool reminiscences from their New Mexico years were passed about the table along with the chips and salsa bowls.
Upon arriving at the Green Room, the bands began to unpack their instruments. Yellow 6 had little equipment to set up, save for Jon's iMac, and a guitar and amps; Jessica Bailiff was also working with minimal gear. Charles Atlas, however, maxed out the tiny corner stage with their collected gizmos. They still had to endure the sound-check which seemed to take its sweet little time. (A fairly inept club employee was apparently subbing for the regular sound technician; he came complete with a pony-tailed pate, semi-sleazy air, and a grunge-era wardrobe that might have made him quite the catch ten or twelve years ago.) Of course, good sound is critical in a performance like this. Charles is of the opinion that there is a lack of technicians that properly understand how to deal with their sound. "Getting a good sound check is a good thing . . . people who do sound generally seem to think that we're going to be easy to mix since we don't have vocals or drums and they usually rush us through it."
The sound of Charles Atlas can be probably best be described as the sum of its parts. Defining them is difficult, but they seem to favor a sonic landscape that joins the looped ghosts of Charles' electric guitar and bass strumming to Jared Matt's strangely eerie Rhodes keyboards. The Rhodes, which has become Jared Matt=s trademark sound, evokes a lot of affectionate comments. "I am in love with the Rhodes sound from that keyboard. It is even smoother and rounder than a real Rhodes. I use it on almost everything. My other cornerstone is a Roland SH-09 analog monophonic keyboard. You can't beat real-time sweepable filters and portamento! I also now use a real Wurlitzer (200 series) which just got repaired, and acoustic pianos whenever they are available (upright or grand, I'm not picky), and an old glockenspiel from the 50's that my ex-girlfriend Leann got me."
Sacha's contributions to the mix include bells and melodica, in addition to occasional cornet, pitch pipes, and Jared Matt also confirms that they will at times make use of NASA recordings, and "other odd sounds as needed." Their creative process usually involves any or all of them contributing random parts to the hodgepodge, while slowly altering them to fit their overall sound.
As the original founding member, Charles outlines the nutshell version of their history. "CA started as a collaboration between myself and Erik Kowalski (Casino vs Japan.) I had just left the band Piano Magic and Erik seemed like the perfect person to work with - we have similar ideas and work really fast together. Matt Greenberg came into the picture when it was time to mix: I had played with Matt in another band (Dart), and trusted his judgment. In the process of mixing, though, I asked him to add piano. A new and somewhat surprising tension started to develop in the music and he ended up writing the closing track.this was the beginning of CA as we know it." Kowalski is no longer in the band, but the dynamic collaborative efforts of Charles and Jared Matt have really come into their own throughout the last few years.
Charles Atlas productive methods have led to several albums. "The first three releases, including a split seven-inch with Alan Sparhawk, (Low) were released on Star Star Stereo. Felt Cover was released on Static Caravan, and Worsted Weight was released on Ochre. We've also worked with Portland's Audraglint on an upcoming twelve-inch."
This tour, of course, focused on their newest album, Worsted Weight. Performing mostly pieces from this latest recording, Charles Atlas seemed to become absorbed into the weight of their own music. In the dimmed light of the Green Room, the appreciative and curious crowd sat in dead silence as Charles Atlas performed an austere and moving set. Jared Matt had enlisted me to aid in operating the persnickety slide projector. A carousel of images that were decidedly blurred from an improperly set focusing barrel lent a Rothko-like quality to the photos on the white screen, all fuzzed out and abstracted into shapes and colors. It even seemed to amplify the sounds generated on stage by making the whole multimedia event a feast for ears and eyes, while hypnotically inducing a sort of transcendent lull over the audience. "The response to our music has generally blown me away," Jared Matt said. "What we do is so personal, often so quiet, so solemn and even sad, and also so slow, that I have often wondered, as much as I like it, whether there would be much of an audience for it. It's certainly not a question of droves of fans or anything like that; though we do quite well, our audience is not huge. Some seem to admire our totally uncompromising ethic. Many incredible musicians have said they find our music very beautiful. I am so flattered by this. Many others, I am sure, find us completely dull. We are certainly not for everyone. Several people have fallen asleep at our shows; but then, to us this is a great compliment."
This sentiment is definitely echoed by Charles. "We seem to raise someone's curiosity each show we play. They might not 'get it' right then and there, but they either buy the record or come to the next show and the following show . . . they don't really say anything so I guess this is sort of a silent feedback which is fine with me because I know that they're listening."
"My primary influences come from the people that I play with. Because the music is so much about lived experience, how the daily world resonates inside me, I can't make a song without it being about the making of that song. The music is really a sort of transcript of this moment that occurred between the three of us, which isn't to say I'm not inspired by many [other] things. If I meditate on [art by ] Motherwell or Beuys long enough I usually pull some sort of melody from it. Also, Sacha and I are both really into film and Matt has a deep love of photography. All of these influences find their place in our music. But it's important to differentiate between those outside sources of inspiration and the inner experience of making the music because, as I said, the music is never 'about' those things. Just cause I'm inspired by a tree doesn't mean that the next song I'm gonna write is 'about' a tree. But the tree resonated in a familiar place, the place that ultimately gives rise to the music. I don't think there are literal themes in the music, though there might be recurring feelings or moods. I guess there has been a consistent approach over the past few years, though we don't sit around and analyze it. The title, Play the Spaces, sums it up pretty well. It has to do with making a framework with enough gaps and punctures to allow the Spaces to leak in and out, breathe on their own."
Charles Wyatt's previous musical projects, Dart and Piano Magic, feel very different for him compared to the music he is creating now with Charles Atlas. "In those bands I was just a player. It felt more like a job, whereas Charles Atlas is a family. They were structured, based on preconceived ideas that I couldn't always personally relate to. Charles Atlas is a sort of a managed improv - musical structures did evolve over time, and that's what you'll hear on the recordings, but they are more organic structures. When we play a song off a record live, we're not trying to duplicate the song and the feelings that gave rise to it, because it's the nature of the structures to grow and change based on where we're at, at any given time. I didn't have a clear focus when I started playing with Erik. It was more about experimentation for the sake of experimentation. We did not know each other very well, and the music was in a really abstract place. As the musical relationships between the band members have deepened over the past few years, though, it has become more of a conversation between us. Not just how we want to see ourselves, and our idealized sense of who we are, but also our flaws and the daily crap that happens when you know people really well. I think this balancing act that goes on between people (and also just inside oneself) has a lot to do with the tension in the music."
The show wrapped up, and some of the lulled members of the audience slipped back into a mode of quietly visiting with their friends and fellow concert goers. The bands began the process of breaking down their gear, while taking swigs of beer and chitchatting with fans and other Seattle acquaintances that had shown up for the set.
Jared Matt considers the meaning of their art. "I think of it much more as a blank screen, a canvas, a projection surface than a painting or representational work; by this I very much mean that ideally the listener must project his or her own images onto it, must complete the picture, must actually finish the piece. Lastly and most pretentiously, C.A. has had a goal that is understood to be outside of our reach but which guides us nonetheless: "to be in control of the beauty of the void."
Charles muses, "Lots of people seem to enjoy it for lots of different reasons, and I'm glad for that. I don't think they have to come from a certain kind of artistic schooling or highbrow place to make sense of what we do." Fortunately for the music afficionados out there, this doesn=t mean that their music is less artistic. It just puts Charles Atlas in a category accessible to anyone who desires to connect with it.