We are delighted to publish this interview with Gayle Ellett, co-founder of Californian prog legends Djam Karet, who this year celebrate their 30th anniversary with the release of the cunningly titled Regenerator 3017, reviewed recently by yours truly on these very pages.
Roger Trenwith: Hi Gayle, thanks for taking the time to chew the fat with us. Tell us how the four of you met originally.
Gayle Ellett: Chuck and I went to the same college in Southern California, Pitzer College, in Claremont (California, USA). Mike and Henry were “townies”, local guys. The year before Chuck was in a band with Henry, I was in a band with Mike, sometimes I played with Chuck, etc. So we all already knew each other from playing music the previous years. So we decided, as a change from what we had individually played in the past … that we would form a band to play only totally improvised music. And so Djam Karet was born!
Roger: Djam Karet is a great name, which roughly translates from Indonesian to “elastic time”. Who came up with that?
Gayle: Chuck Oken was reading a book by Harlan Ellison, where it is mentioned. And so we picked it. We knew no one else was going to! And, since we play non-commercial music, a non-commercial name seemed like a good idea at the time (and it still does today).
Roger: What were your influences back at the start, particularly as you started out as a jamming band?
Gayle: We started off as a band playing totally improvised music … as a reflection of the previous bands we had all played in. We all wanted to do something different from what we’d done before. So it was more about making a change. We were very influenced by the music of our youth … 1970’s music. Personally, I was listening to a ton of music by: The Allman Brothers, Yes, ZZ Top, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles, ELP, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc. We were also inspired by Floyd’s “Echoes” and “Live At Pompeii”.
Roger: I introduced your modern sound on a new music blog linked to DPRP as “Pink Floyd arm wrestling with King Crimson in a three-decade-long bout that has yet to declare a winner”. That certainly isn’t the be all and end all of your sound, but would it be fair to say that there is an influence from both of those bands that can be heard in your music?
Gayle: Yes, that’s totally true. Everyone in our band likes a wide variety of music, from really spacey Electronic sound-scapey music by Steve Roach … all the way to Heavy Metal bands like Opeth and Metallica. And yes, we like Pink Floyd and King Crimson. So much of our music has beautiful spacey synth sections, combined with angular heavy bashing. But on our 2 most recent albums, there was not much bashing, they’re both more mellow. Each album is different, because we’re not trying to re-create past successes (we’d have to be “successful” for that to happen)!
Roger: I’m a big fan of Kosmische Music and Krautrock in general. Is there an influence from the likes of Klaus Schulze, Cosmic Jokers, etc in your music? I’m sure I can hear it, especially in The Trip!
Gayle: We are all BIG fans of Tangerine Dream, but also Richard Pinhas’ group Heldon. And Kraftwerk and other groups as well. They are a big part of how we learned to see music. So they color what we do. We have recorded another new album (at the same time we recorded Regenerator 3017) that is “sequencer” based, somewhat like Tangerine Dream, but it’s not done, and I’m not at all sure if we are going to release it. We’ve also written music for another whole album of rock music too, but I’m not sure if THAT album will get recorded, because there’s talk about composing music for ANOTHER new album, based on cinematic soundtrack-style music (in a DK-way, of course). MAYBE THAT album will come out eventually. We’re just not sure right now which we will work on next, as there are so many music projects to pick from, which is typical of us!
Roger: When did the band start to write more structured pieces?
Gayle: I think after about two years of playing only totally improvised music, where we would just tune up and start with NO predetermined key or structure, we bought a sampling keyboard/sequencer that could make cool and weird sounds. In order to better utilize it, some structure was slowly added in. Then I bought a guitar synthesizer and more keyboards, and we slowly became more composed.
Roger: How did the writing process evolve to where it is now?
Gayle: Every rehearsal starts off with a long jam, sometimes an hour-long piece, which is recorded. Many ideas from these tapes are then pulled out, brushed off, built up, and worked on, becoming the nugget of a new tune. But we also bring in song ideas on our own, for the band to re-hash and improve upon. Sometimes we bring in completely finished tunes, and sometimes just a rough idea/fragment. Then everyone chimes in with their ideas, and we’ll play in 50 to 100 different ways, over the course of many days (while working on other stuff too). We’ll try moving the middle section to the end of the tune, cutting or lengthening sections, changing keys, rhythms, etc. And the best and only way we can really judge it, is to play the whole tune with each and every variation that the band has suggested. They are all recorded, then the best one is picked, and usually always, we are all in agreement!! So that’s really cool!! It’s amazing really.
Roger: Was it a conscious decision not to have vocals? Can you foresee a DK album with a singer ever happening?
Gayle: Have you ever heard me sing? Or the other guys? We STINK!! And anyway, vocal music is lame! Nearly all of the CDs I have are instrumental (or in languages I don’t understand). OK … vocal music can be great, but, when a band has a singer, he’s the “Front Man” and we would all become the “Backup Group”. We wanted Djam Karet to be a place where we could all be challenged and pushed, so being in a singer’s backup band seemed like a dumb idea. In our band the bass & drums really get to be up-front, etc. That’s a good thing. And, let’s face it, most lyrics are quite lame. Music with vocals is like a movie with narration … but a GOOD movie … doesn’t NEED narration!
Roger: Having heard more than a few singers who can’t in my time, from what you say there, I’m glad you never tried!
Roger: Unusually the four founder members (Mike Henderson – guitar, Henry J Osborne – bass, Chuck Oken Jr – drums and yourself – guitar/keyboards) are still recording together, and all are present and correct on new album Regenerator 3017. I say unusually, as most bands that last as long as you have suffered original members leaving. What’s the secret?
Gayle: We NEVER argue about money… because we don’t have any! We rarely play live, and we all like to record, and we only make the kinds of albums we want to. There’s no pressure to please our fans, because we’re not interested in doing that. We write for ourselves. The making of the recorded album is the single big challenge. Can we make an album as good as the ones we look up to? I aspire to someday be the peer of my idols. Not to sound like them, or be as famous or rich, but to be “top shelf” like they were. So we try, and we make CDs. Since there are enough people that seem to be interested in buying copies, we are able to press up CDs and sell them. But if no one bought our albums, we’d still record and make them … but they just would not be pressed up for sale. Fortunately, we have some fans!! To them I say THANK YOU!
Roger: A more recent addition to the ranks is Mike Murray, another guitarist who has been on board since 2010’s The Heavy Soul Sessions. How did you hook up with him?
Gayle: He’s my neighbor. He lives 4 houses away. We ride motorcycles together, etc. He sat in (on guitar) on a big recording session I had with my acoustic group Fernwood, so I knew he could play complex music. Then, we got offered the chance to headline a 3-day festival held on the beach in France! The Heavy Soul Sessions is a studio recording of the music we performed in France. Anyway, to get a fuller sound I wanted to play the gig as a 5-piece. (I play both guitar and keyboards, so I could go either way). But finding guitar player is a lot easier then finding a good keyboard player … here in Los Angeles, EVERYONE is a guitar player!
Roger: With three guitar players in the band I’d bet you’d do a great raucous cover of any classic early Blue Oyster Cult number. Seven Screaming Dizbusters springs to mind!
Gayle: I saw that band play a few times back in the 1970’s, early 80’s and they were quite good! I always loved their recordings. And it also makes me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band I always REALLY loved! I still do today. I love Southern Rock. And the Allman Brothers were truly amazing! Dicky Betts taught me how to play guitar (I learned all of his riffs, as a kid).
Roger: Djam Karet is known for never making the same album twice. Indeed, your last three albums are stylistically quite distinct from one another. Again, is that conscious decision or does it just evolve that way?
Gayle: We do that deliberately. Making a studio album is a big deal and takes a lot of time. So, you want to change things up on the next one, to keep your interest. Makes sense, right? Too many bands are locked in, and can’t move around. But we’re not one of those bands. Actually, The Trip was recorded at the same time as The Heavy Soul Sessions. Our sessions/rehearsals are usually about 8 hours long. So, to take a brake from recording THSS … we would just improvise and play spacey improv music (with the recorder turned on). About 10 hours of jams were taped between takes on THSS. From these 10 hours, 47 minutes were pulled out to make up The Trip. While I was mixing The Trip, we had already started recording Regenerator 3017. So there was a lot of over lap. And there is ALWAYS a lot of extra music we record, that never makes it onto the actual album (later, these sometimes end up on “compilations”, etc).
Roger: Is there a hint at a new beginning in the “regenerator” of the album title? You all seem as full of ideas as you ever were.
Gayle: Yes, that is totally true! We wanted to convey a certain attitude. We had earlier thought about titles like “We’re Not Dead Yet” and “Still Kicking” or even “This Side Of The Grass” but we picked the current title instead. And since it’s our 17th album in 30 years together the 3017 made sense too! It is a very calm and confident album. We’re not trying to prove anything on that CD.
Roger: In your day job you write soundtrack/theme music for TV and films. Does the method of composing these find any use in DK’s music? Have snatches of your soundtrack music ever found their way into DK’s tunes, or vice versa?
Gayle: No. They’re totally different. There’s no overlap. Everything about the two styles is different. I am a big fan of keeping your styles/goals completely separate. Each project should have a goal. If it is commercial, then it should be 100% commercial. And if its art-music, then it should be 100% that way. I don’t mix them together, ever. Sure, the Beatles could do it, but I’m not that good!
Roger: Reading your website, you have credits for all kinds of musical collaborations, including being hired by Michelle Shocked, which isn’t a name I would immediately associate with the kind of music I know you for. There must be other interesting collaborations we don’t know about?
Gayle: I play in such a wide and varied world, that the short version of what I do … is quite long! I play a lot of acoustic music, in different groups (I play in 5 groups right now). Michelle needed an acoustic group for show here in Los Angeles, so she called me. I’ve been working some with Grammy Award winner Alfonso Rodenas, and I just did some studio work at world-famous-super-producer Rick Rubin’s Malibu studio Shangri-La, that was FUN! I played Turkish Cumbus and Wheel Harp (there are only 4 in existence), for one of their clients (I can’t say who). I love recording, and I hate performing (I get bad stage-fright). And recording with other people is fun and challenging. I’m lucky, really.
Roger: You mentioned your acoustic group Fernwood earlier, and now we learn about all your other acoustic bands. Is there any released music you can point us at, it all sounds rather intriguing!
Gayle: You can hear some of my award-winning (“#4 Album Of The Year”, on ECHOES RADIO) acoustic music here on my group Fernwood’s website . I also play Greek Bouzouki in my friend Joee Corso’s group, but I can’t find any of the recordings we’ve done, unfortunately. And you can hear a TV commercial I did the music for, that airs in The Netherlands, its rather funny: Click HERE to watch …
Roger: Marvellous! The censor must have been at lunch!
Roger: You must be justifiably proud of your work on charity fund-raiser CDs. Tell us about some of those.
Gayle: Somebody’s got to do it! As a person who creates disasters in my own little world, it’s my obligation to help alleviate them in the real world. I wear a cowboy hat, so it’s my job. I like doing it, and like most things … it’s fun and challenging. You want to be able to look back on your life and be happy about what you see!
Roger: You have appeared on albums by fellow Djam Karet members in various combinations. Are they all quite different to Djam Karet albums, especially as DK never do the same thing twice?
Gayle: Yes, they are all quite different. And Mike Murray plays in an improv jazz band I have called HILLMEN, etc … so yes, they are all quite different.
Roger: I would imagine quite a few folk reading this will be aware of your contributions to the two albums to date by the rather fine Herd of Instinct. How did that come about, and will you be contributing to future recordings by that band?
Gayle: I got to know Mark Cook, thru Dave Streett, who I’ve known for years. I’d worked on some music for Dave many years ago, and then I got to know Mark. They flew me down to Texas to record and everything worked out really easily and very well. So I’ve remained involved with them. they are GREAT players, musicians and friends! And we have just released a new album by Mark Cook of Herd of Instinct fame, called Spoke Of Shadows, with Bill Backman. It’s really good!
Roger: Yep, look out for my review of Spoke of Shadows, hopefully soon(ish).
Roger: What do the other band members get up to musically when not playing with Djam Karet?
Gayle: They all write their own compositions and record and work on music, some of which comes out on CD. They all do different stuff. There’s not a lot I can say about it. I’m not very involved in it.
Roger: Are there any live dates planned as part of Djam Karet’s 30th anniversary celebrations? Have you ever played in Europe?
Gayle: We had that gig in France that I mentioned earlier. As far as gigs in 2014, I’m not sure what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll not do any gigs at all. But there’s some talk here in the studio that maybe we’ll organize a small mini-event, with Djam Karet and some other bands that we like too. But I’m not sure if that will happen. Who knows? We’ll see!
Roger: Finally, we’ve been doing this interview courtesy of the wonders of internet communication, thousands of miles apart. If it had been done in a restaurant, which cuisine style would you have preferred? Mine’s Indian or Thai by the way!
Gayle: I LOVE Thai food, it’s like Chinese food, only better. And I love Chinese food too! Here in LA we also have a lot of good cheap Mexican food. That’s a big staple of the “Djam Karet Studio Diet”!! We eat that stuff each week, while we’re tracking. That’s why were all so portly!
Roger: Thanks for your time, Gayle, it’s been fun. And best of luck with all those projects. I can’t wait to hear the results!