(Group Spotlight and Interview) Project Metamorphosis
Project Metamorphosis, a collaboration between Seattle-based experimental guitarist and organizer behind last year’s collaborative performance exhibition COMMUNION Daniel Mcmanus and Portland-based visual artist J.R. Slattum, is a visionary undertaking in a world too bereft of vision. The audio-visual duo are trying to get their debut recording Communion released in physical form, and were thoughtful enough to share some early mixes of the album with me. Communion was recorded live from 2014 to 2015, and is divided into two sections: Duality (tracks 1-3) and Non-Duality (4-8). Conceptually, the release is about the spiritual journeys of change and renewal of the artist; musically, I think that it is something pretty intriguing: a series of guitar explorations that form a cosmic emotionalism not quite ambient music and not quite progressive rock. Visually, J.R. Slattum’s highly imaginative, but figurative, artwork is a perfect complement to Mcmanus’s melodic but free-flowing sensibility.
I took the time a few weeks back to interview the two via email on the project, their relationship, and their thoughts on life. Here’s what they had to say:
How did the two of you meet?
DM: My wife actually met Justin before I did…she went on a solo trip to Portland in 2013 and found his booth at the Saturday Market. She loved his work and knew that I would too. We moved to Portland a few months later, and when the Market opened for Spring I stopped by. It turns out that we had all been to the Tool concert just a few weeks earlier. It was a good launching point for our friendship. We kept in touch, and when I started planning some live shows in the area, I went to Justin to ask if he would be willing to lend his art to the performance. I showed him some rough demos of what I was working on, and we talked out the general narrative of the suite of songs I refer to as Non-Duality (tracks 4-8 on the new album). We just kept it going from there. Justin has been incredibly generous and I’m definitely grateful for the opportunity to incorporate his artwork into these projects.
How did Project Metamorphosis come about?
[DM]: Project Metamorphosis is the kind of umbrella concept for my solo music. It’s an outgrowth of some concepts I was interested in many years ago…reading The Silence of the Lambs and the role of metamorphosis and “Imago” in Buffalo Bill’s psyche, metamorphosis as a vehicle for absurdity in Kafka. Eventually the idea coalesced into the positive aspects of metamorphosis: growth through change and total transformation. Although, in keeping with the idea of Non-Duality, the negative potential is still acknowledged and accepted; alienation and loss as you move forward, chaos as an element of change and potential precursor to growth and enlightenment. I try to keep these concepts in mind as I move through my own life, and I look at my music as a reflection of all that…Project Metamorphosis is therefore the idea of my music as a vehicle for personal growth and transformation, with the ultimate goal being enlightenment and Non-Duality.
What led to the choice of the name “Project Metamorphosis”? If it’s a hint at a concept, how does that connect with the name Communion?
[DM]: As I said, Project Metamorphosis is a broader concept, but it is certainly reflected in the narrative we developed for the Non-Duality suite. That set of songs, intended as a linear live performance pairing Justin’s images with my music, represents the artist’s or philosopher’s journey from ego through loss or doubt and into acceptance, enlightenment, and universality. Communion is a part of that. In the concept of non-duality, you recognize the connection between what appear to be separate states or entities…communion is the act of joining, taking one into another and eliminating that illusion of separation. With the live event we did in 2015, the concept was expressed through live musical collaboration, live art staged in a music venue, and the free flow of the audience through the gallery style arrangement. With this album, it’s more personal, more about how I view music or art as a form of communion between self and the greater universe. And the continued collaboration with Justin’s art is another form of communion, and aids in the expression of these concepts.
Who are some of the composers you are most interested in, and how did you become acquainted with their stuff? What musical idioms do you like to listen to the most, and why?
[DM]: I listen to a lot of heavy music, which you probably would not expect from listening to this album. Tool, Isis and Meshuggah are longtime favorites…recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Between the Buried and Me, kind of proggy metal. I like a lot of instrumental stuff like Russian Circles, Pelican, Red Sparrows, Explosions in the Sky, and I’ve also been exploring Aaron Turner’s various projects (Mamiffer, Sumac, Old Man Gloom). On the more melodic end I’m a big fan of Steven Wilson.
Mostly I explore music by association (for example, Tool led to my interest in Isis and Meshuggah, but also to King Crimson and various related projects), or by recommendation from friends (which can lead me to some unexpected treasures, such as Ben Frost’s By the Throat).
I like heavy music with a lot of subtlety, interesting rhythms, and unexpected emotional impact. And I’m fascinated by the potential for instrumental music to express what words cannot, to reach into our psyche on a deeper emotional level.
Who are some of your biggest influences on guitar?
[DM]: I pretty much taught myself to play guitar by listening to Tool and trying to play along and emulate their sound. It’s less obvious now, but Adam Jones is definitely a huge influence on my playing and approach to music in general. Their music comes across as very direct and high impact, but there’s a lot of subtlety there too. In interviews Adam has talked about how he always tries to serve the music first, to play what is right for each part rather than playing something just because it’s cool or fun or difficult to play. Music is as much about restraint, about what you don’t play, as it is about what you do. Meeting him two years ago was actually part of the inspiration to become more active in playing live and recording new material.
Aside from Adam Jones, I consider Trey Gunn and Robert Fripp to be major influences in concept and style (though I know I could never approach their level in technique). And surprisingly, another major influence is Sean Malone, a bassist! He’s an incredible musician, and I experienced a kind of epiphany when I first heard his song Grace on the self-titled Gordian Knot album. It’s a song he plays solo on the Chapman stick, and I was really floored by the dynamics and depth of expression he was able to conjure. And I think there’s a kind of courage and vulnerability in that kind of solo performance, like you’re laid bare. That one song opened me to the possibilities of solo instrumental performance, and it primed me to better appreciate Fripp’s soundscapes (particularly A Blessing of Tears) and some of Trey Gunn’s solo work.
When I read the phrase “vibrations literally shaking physical reality” from the text meant for inclusion in the physical release, I thought about something someone once said about how they felt it was important for sound to be “freed” i.e. played with an instrument and not created with software.
Your thoughts on this? What about times when the sound artist is less physically invested in the act of creation? What’s going on there?
[DM]: I do prefer for music to be “free”, to be played loud and felt as much as heard. But I don’t discount the relevance of music made using computers and programming. It seems to me a more cerebral process, but still a valid form of expression.
With regards to the quote, I was referring to a couple of different ideas. One is the transformation of an artist’s internal energies into a force that impacts their external reality. This applies to both visual art and music, and is true regardless of the instrument used. The other concept at play is the more direct connection experienced when music is played through an instrument; it’s a confluence of technology, physics, and biology that to me can amount to a form of almost spiritual communion.
Do you still experience that connection when music is created on a computer? Maybe. It seems less direct, but ultimately it forges a connection between the musician, the sound he creates, and the listener, through the air that shakes between them. That’s a powerful concept.
Describe the process of recording Communion.
[DM]: It’s actually been pretty tough. The past year has been a kind of downswing for me personally which has made it hard to stay in a creative mindset and feel capable of taking on this project. I’ve forced myself to commit to it and push through, but it’s definitely taken longer than I would have liked.
The actual process is relatively simple…I have a very basic home recording set up and have my guitar rig going directly into the computer interface. It’s all recorded in an organic, live format, so there are no overdubs, no click tracks. I wanted to capture the essence of the live performances, so while some of the songs have evolved through this process they are all played just as they would be played live. Everything is performed on a guitar with live loops. There’s a lot of improvisation in these songs, too. Most of them have a basic structure that I adhere to but there’s room in each song for some improvisation, and some can change dramatically as a result. I try to be open to the music, to listen and respond as I’m playing.
Have any particular philosophers influenced the ideas behind your music, as well as the narrative behind Project Metamorphosis?
[DM]: I was introduced to the concept of non-duality by Thich Nhat Hahn. He writes in such simple and undeniable terms but his writings are also very profound. It’s a good primer on Eastern philosophy. I referenced Kafka earlier, and I would say that there’s definitely some existentialism running through my belief system and my aesthetic perspective. Part of the philosopher’s journey, as conceptualized in this album, is confronting that kind of abyss, the paradox of nothingness and oneness. Realizing they are the same and finding a way to be uplifted by that, by shedding your ego.
[J. R. Slattum]
Who were your earliest influences from visual art?
[JRS]: Growing up I was always into the weird stuff. MC Escher, MAD Magazine, Cam De Leon, and Ray Harryhausen. There’s probably some Dr Seuss in there too.
What kinds of concepts do you want your art to relate to the viewer?
[JRS]: A sense of inward travel. I think we’re so externalized as a culture that a lot of us are strangers to even ourselves- therefor, at a micro-to-macro perspective, the collective is blind too. How can we grow when we repress? Travel bravely into the unknown, bring back souvenirs for everyone.
How do the visual ideas from the paintings relate to the sounds on the album?
[JRS]: It’s a story of transformation, inside and out, open to the viewers’ subjective experience- that journey tying us all together.
When I first looked at your paintings, the first association I made in my head was with Magritte. Do you feel a lot of loyalty or interest to any particular school or movement in visual art?
[JRS]: I enjoy art that creates a cerebral experience, so I try to create art that can offer the same. Technique-wise, I respect the Old Masters- particularly Peter Paul Rubens and his handle of shadow and light. Movement-wise, I think subscribing to a particular flavor of art can be stifling… just do you and be true to the moment.
Who are your favorite novelists?
[JRS]: I find myself drawn to non-fiction rather than novels- Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Terence McKenna, and CG Jung. Brain food to better polish one’s lens.
[DM and JRS together]
What religious backgrounds do you both come from?
[DM]: My family is from mixed backgrounds, so I was basically raised with no religion other than very surface level observations of major holidays. I consider myself a strict atheist, but I find wonder and amazement in the world around me.
[JRS]: My family gave me plenty of freedom to discover my own relationship with the experience of living. I’d say I became strictly atheist as I became older, until a near-death experience at 25. That changed my perspective forever and piqued my interest in philosophy. These days I’m agnostic and my practice is art.
What’s important about collaboration and what has it taught you in the long run?
[DM]: Collaboration pushes you in new directions and forces you to adapt and grow. I have learned so much over the years from playing music with different people. Collaborating with Justin has helped me to really think about my music in more conceptual and narrative terms. I appreciate the nonverbal elements of music and art but it’s also important to have some thought behind what you put out into the world. Pairing music with art is, in my opinion, a great way to add substance to both mediums, to understand your own art in a different way and to hopefully reach the audience at a deeper level.
[JRS]: It’s important to lose the sense of your self, empathetically merge, and let the art create itself. The moment you try to control the beast, it’ll buck you off, and it shows. You just go with the flow.
To help support Project Metamorphosis and fund the physical release of Communion, as well as get a sneak peak at what to expect, head on down to the project’s Bandcamp page, where the Non-Duality section of the album is available for purchase for $7.
Happy listening to you; let’s help these guys get this project off the ground.