Formed in New York in 2012, 75 Dollar Bill have been exploring a part-composed, part-improvised and highly meditative sound world for several years, eventually coming to wider attention in the UK with the 2017 reissue of their excellent second album. Blessed with a tricksy title (Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock) that proved a little challenging to place in the correct sequence, it encapsulated their sonic and conceptual concerns with disarming accuracy.
Ostensibly a duo of guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown, 75 Dollar Bill frequently morphs and shape shifts to accommodate a range of different line-ups, being a malleable musical family. Chen, Brown and friends now return with I Was Real, billed as a third studio album proper, but really more like a compilation of longstanding experiments and ideas that capture the developing processed and absorbing, transcendental sound of these musicians over a long period of time.
Chen and Brown are in some ways an unusual duo, spanning different musical circles and age groups, but they have achieved a natural symbiosis in both their sound and their working methods. It sounds a little quaint now in the age of Instagram, but the two musicians actually met on MySpace. “MySpace was absolutely crucial! I learned about Che’s band through MySpace. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it but that’s how I first heard his name,” Brown explains. This was the band True Primes that Chen formed with his friend Rolyn Hu. “I think the first time Rick and I met in person was at one of Rolyn’s solo shows, then he just started coming to all the shows,” Chen says. “Slowly we started to learn about all the bands Rick had been in. He was very humble about it, but we dug around.” “Not actually all that easy when you have a name like Rick Brown,” Brown jokes. “I could have been that other guy!”
“The most recent record has the 12 string fretted like a regular guitar and the quarter tone six string guitar but more recently, I’ve been playing in ‘just intonation’ which is a whole other thing again.” – Che Chen, 75 Dollar Bill
Fortunately, rather than a case of mistaken identity, this turned out to be a fruitful meeting of minds, eventually resulting in an intriguing combination of modified instruments that has proved to be innovative and exciting. Chen uses a range of different guitars: “As I’ve been getting into different tuning systems and intonation, I’ve been having the guitars modified to follow suit. The most recent record has the 12 string fretted like a regular guitar and the quarter tone six string guitar but more recently, I’ve been playing in ‘just intonation’ which is a whole other thing again.”
Brown largely eschews the conventional drum kit in favour of a wooden box. “The box is five pieces of plywood,” he explains with a willingness that demonstrates the extent of the enthusiasm he has for this musical discovery, given that he must get asked to describe it over and over again. “The original one I found in the street over a decade ago. There’s nothing fancy about it – it’s a cube with one side open. Now I’m more proud because I actually made them. The implements I use to play it are crucial for the sound – various types of mallets and things that rattle when they hit the box.” He emphasises that he has not given up on the drum kit, just that he rarely uses it for this project. “I did play some drums in part of our second set at Cafe Oto (the much loved London venue specialising in improvised music, the avant garde and electronica) last year but we don’t usually use them.”
Listening to the patiently unfolding and hypnotic music on I Was Real, which often has a ritualistic or ceremonial quality – the band have described their music as ‘tent music for tent people’ – it feels that there is a consistent thread emphasising sound, timbre and texture over conventional melody or harmony. There is plenty of repetition, with rhythms being transposed and displaced over time, but the nature of the sound being generated by a specific instrument or combination of instruments also seems crucial to the impact of the music. A lot of this would appear to come from Chen and Brown’s respective routes in to playing music.
“There was a time when I would just try to play anything and I think I was just curious and learned a lot about the way a string behaves, how a column of air behaves, how a drum head behaves. That was what drove me to learn about music, that was my education.” – Che Chen
“I didn’t study music,” Chen admits. “I took some piano lessons when I was a kid but I didn’t do very well at them. Most of my experience learning how to play was just messing around with instruments. If you don’t have someone explaining western music theory to you, the things that are most available to you are sound and the physics of what’s happening. There was a time when I would just try to play anything and I think I was just curious and learned a lot about the way a string behaves, how a column of air behaves, how a drum head behaves. That was what drove me to learn about music, that was my education.”
Brown agrees that sound and timbre are important, but appears to have reached this conclusion from an almost polar opposite perspective. “It’s taken me a big chunk of my musical life to get to that point where I understand sound a little more and I focus more on it,” he explains. “When I was first playing, I was playing whatever was in front of me, which initially was the boiler in the basement in college. I then got a drum and then another drum and I just built up from that. The playing I was doing was first very crude. Like Che, I’m not schooled at all in music. I was coming up in the punk rock world but I was not even able to be inspired by that DIY thing. I wasn’t learning how to play really fast versions of Chuck Berry tunes or Sex Pistols songs. I wanted to play in 5/4 and I was making these guitar players do this at a very slow tempo. It was about metre and tempo before it was about sound. I didn’t care what I was hitting as long as it could make it sound like five hits. As I became a drummer and got a larger kit and realised you had to tune the things to make them sound the way you wanted them.”
Some of those concerns remain in the primal rhythms Brown deploys on his box, often combining a slow tempo with urgency and generating forward motion in the music even when it is at its most contemplative, but he also now seeks to generate sonic variety too. “With our band, especially when we’re playing as a duo, I need to be doing as much as I can to add some texture there. I’ve worked a lot on making the box sound cool.”
It seems like self-directed experimenting and training through research and practice have done much to inform the group’s approach. Chen conceives of his own approach to music as “like a folk art. You are learning because you are following your interests. Sometimes I envy people who have got this very broad training in musical fundamentals and sometimes I wish that I had those skills but at the same time I feel that it’s just not really been my way. I’ve been more inclined to pursue things that are intriguing to me. One way is to seek people who are more experienced than you in those areas – another is to build the thing so you can make the sound you are after. All of that is really important to me and how I think about the idea of making music.”
This notion of music as a folk art may also have informed their approach to performing and recording, either working as a core duo or adding musicians that have become part of an extended 75 Dollar Bill family that is showcased to its fullest extent on I Was Real. “As the work on the record came together and we realised we were going to have most of the people that we play with on it, we eventually decided that we had to have everybody,” Brown enthuses.
I Was Real was recorded in a range of studios over time, with some sessions dating as far back as 2015, although it appears this was more through necessity than by design. “We knew we wanted to work with Tony Maimone again, who is great engineer and who worked on our last record,” Chen explains. “But beyond that we just recorded when we had the opportunity and it’s really been cobbled together over several years. It’s actually nice that way because it ties together different people we’ve been playing with over the years and it’s great to have the whole family on record.”
The album features significant contributions from Sue Garner on bass, Cheryl Kingan on alto saxophone and Karen Waltuch on amplified viola, amongst others. It sometimes feels like this can transport the group’s by now familiar extended explorations (the biting, incisive tone of Chen’s guitar and the multifaceted percussion) into different places. For example, the viola perhaps adds other folk musics to what has often been described as being potentially inspired by Malian desert blues (especially on the compelling opener Every Last Coffee Or Tea).
Chen is particularly keen to avoid direct comparisons with specific, geographically or culturally specific music, however. “This improvising on pentatonic scales can really sound like lots of different things. Some people have thought of klezmer music when they’ve heard the viola. There’s an element of us using these musical materials that are common to all kinds of folk music rather than thinking of any one type of folk music as an influence necessarily.” Engaging more with specifics briefly, Brown explains that some of Waltuch’s expertise is actually in Appalachian folk music, and accepting that the individual enthusiasms and expertise of the musicians can cut through.
One particularly appealing aspect of 75 Dollar Bill’s music is the way in which it presents a difficulty in assessing what might be written or directed and what might be improvised. “The roles of different instruments have different amounts of freedom,” Brown explains. “With Sue (Garner), who plays bass on the record, it was not so much about real parts and more about placing certain limitations on what we wanted the bass to do. With Steven (Maing – additional guitarist), he could either be doubling Che’s part or working against it in some way. Sometimes the timing or placement of a particular riff is up to Che and Steve will just have to follow that.” Again, the evolution and nurturing of longstanding musical relationships seems crucial to the band’s writing and recording process. “We rarely ever book someone, say play this part and then you’re done,” Chen admits. “Sometimes people have freedom, but we prefer if that comes through working with people over time.”
The relationship between time and sound is one of the group’s fundamental concerns, sometimes over the space of one track. The immersive, compelling title track on I Was Real occupies an entire side of vinyl. Brown jokes that at one stage they were recording all their music as they worked in rehearsal and each piece would always end up being 26 minutes (I Was Real has ended up as a mercilessly concise 17 minutes – “long for a rock song but very constricting for a raga”). Brown elaborates that I Was Real is actually the oldest composition on the album – “a metric concept that I had brought to Che many years ago”. The piece is based on a 21 beat rhythmic cycle, and is a piece that has been “central to us for a long time now”. Chen confesses that “that one really kicked my ass! It was very formative for me in how to think about the rhythm both in the band and more generally. Rick and I both like a lot of music that is used in contexts where it goes on for a long time – the festive musics, Afro Caribbean traditions like samba and salsa, people are jamming, and you play these rhythms for a long time. Especially live, we tend to stretch things out.”
“Sometimes we have an audience and people will visibly be counting to work out the rhythmic meter” – Che Chen
This can have the effect of making the group’s music seem potent, simple and direct but also compellingly intricate at the same time. “It would be disappointing if it felt people were having to understand, rather than just listening and enjoying,” Brown suggests. “Sometimes we have an audience and people will visibly be counting to work out the rhythmic meter – but that’s not really what we’re about. What it’s really about is that the overlay of the patterns is itself interesting, and it makes something happen that doesn’t happen in 4/4. These things in 21 or 15, they have this quality that you don’t get from another approach.” Chen emphasises the importance of groove amidst all the “esoteric numbers” and different ways of “framing time”.
In addition to capturing the group’s experiments with groove, rhythm, meter and timbre, this album also brings to the foreground an interest in sound manipulation and the resources of the studio. This not only offers an effective counterpoint to the lengthy explorations of instrumental sound but also presents a side of the band that might be new to some listeners who discovered the band through Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock.
“Our earlier cassette tapes had these sorts of collage things, so it’s nice to bring these on to the official releases as well,” Chen explains. He goes on to say that “recording an album is a long process and I file to keep it creative for as long as possible before it gets nailed down.” One of these tracks, WZN#3 (verso), is based on a quartet recording but, following the addition of several overdubs, Chen and Brown removed the original tracks. Another track, dubbed C or T (verso), is comprised from backwards versions of parts recorded for the introduction to Every Last Coffee Or Tea. Using both software and cassette tape, the track involves both digital and analogue manipulations. “It’s nothing fancy and definitely not state of the art,” Brown says modestly, although this belies the mysterious and brilliantly insidious nature of the music.
I Was Real is a mesmerising, transporting work that unashamedly captures the band’s nuanced and patient approach to longer form music, but it is in their live shows that they can really take flight. Currently there are no firm plans for 75 Dollar Bill to return to the UK, but Brown is confident that they will be back when they have worked out the logistics of combining their music with other work commitments. “It will happen,” he says. “We love to play”.