Conversation with experimental independent band Corpus Callosum

 

Corpus Callosum is an independent group based out of Santa Clara, California. Known for transforming ordinary objects into musical instruments, their motto is “To Confuse and Terrify.” They explore bits of history and unusual facts and stories through their songs, and have been reviewed as ‘both behind and ahead of our time.’

Guide to bandmates by initials:

AB: Avery Burke (guitar, songwriter)
DT: Dax Tran-Caffee (accordion, glasses, songwriter)
QC: Qarly Canant (ukelele, glasses)
SH: Stevie Hryciw (keys, keys, keys)
AC: Andrea Craer (mandolin)
JS: Jason Samaha (percussion)

You have a lot of influences…were they conscious or unconscious? Does a new musician set out to emulate or do a takeoff on someone else, or does it just happen?

AB: I feel that artists (musicians or whoever else) should always remain as conscious of their influences as they possibly can. Especially when you first begin to generate a body of work. Ira Glass of the NPR show This American Life once said something to the effect that when he first started out in radio he had taste but no idea how to express himself; he had no voice and no clear artistic vision. Everybody starts out that way: you have taste but no voice. This is especially true for musicians, I think, and it manifests itself in the phenomena (well observed at open mics) that most new musicians just sound like their influences. Some musical outfits never graduate from this stage, and that suits them fine. But really good acts eventually find a unique voice – I would like to think that Corpus Callosum is slowly progressing toward this latter sage of artistic maturation. In my opinion keeping your artistic influences present in your mind while creating and performing makes the difference between referencing and imitation.

What distinguishes you from other musicians…what do you feel makes your sound unique?

DT: There is a significant compulsion in all of us in the band to make something unlike anything we have heard before, but this has always been tempered by a desire to craft quality songs and compositions with lasting taste.  Because most everyone in music is trying to do ‘something different,’ however, I think that it is actually the latter impulse that has separated us the most from our peers.

Where do you get your song ideas? Share more about your process in composing. Music or lyrics first?

QC: Avery and Dax are really the strong stead of inception for our songs. One of them will have an idea and it will be posed to the group. Sometimes they have an idea of an arrangement already, other times we work together to discover a sound that pairs well with the skeleton of the piece.

DT: Personally, I can’t help but write the lyrics first, like a poem, and then try to slap it over a silly vamp.  This produces horrible results, of course, which I present to the band and hope that they can help me sort it out.

Did/do you have a mentor with whom you worked to develop your music?

SH: For Corpus? Just each other. The songs are very collaborative, especially recently.

DT: I have painting mentors and performance mentors and puppet mentors, but I have never had a musical mentor.  I wonder if this is why music has been my most satisfying form of expression.

How has it been different to work in collaboration with someone else?

AC: Way more fun, and way more productive. With seven creative people all contributing ideas, you are bound to come up with more than you could have on your own. The overall vision of the song may come from one person, but all the little details coming from the other six are what make it a complete piece.

DT: When I took a leave of absence from the band from 2006 to 2009 to work on my MFA, it was the first time I’d ever worked on music independently.  During this time, I had a chance to see what really happens, artistically, when an individual’s interests are no longer tempered by the concerns of their collaborators.  I ended up making a lot of awful artistic decisions during this time.  The American fascination with the iconic tortured artist heroically laboring away in a solitary studio makes for very ugly artwork.  No one should attempt to make work alone.

AB: It is hard for me to create if I don’t feel like I’m trying beat Dax at his own game. Of course he is always one step ahead of me.

How’s the international reception for your music…have you ever played out of the US/discovered you have international fans? We have many international readers.

AB: We would love to play outside of the US, though we’ve never had the opportunity. We seem to have a few fans in Poland.

SH: Someone in Warsaw bought our CD online a few years ago. Someone in Berlin, too, I think. Honestly, I have no idea how, or even if, they’d ever heard of us.

DT: I think that what we are doing musically is not alone internationally, as the entire world is responding artistically to technology and its repercussions.  We have always been incredibly interested in foreign folk traditions, from Balinese Kecak to lost Russian folk artists to Cambodian Psychadelic.  I think that our music, not only as a respresentation of what is going on with us in California, but also as our response to the influences of foreign musics, may be interesting to international audiences even more so than domestic audiences.  Maybe.

Why did you choose music as a medium as opposed to writing poems, etc? How did you choose your style of music?

SH: As far as I can tell, people don’t arbitrarily decide what they fall deeply in love with. Music is my very life force, and not I something that I feel I chose.  As for the style, that’s something that evolved very slowly and organically, rather than being decided upon.

AC: I feel more like music chose me. Almost every member of my family is musical in some way, so it was always a part of my environment. But I wouldn’t say that music won over other forms of creative output, and I think that’s true of the whole band.

DT: I try to dabble in as many things as possible, have a degree in painting and a degree in performance, and yet I still keep coming back to songwriting.  I think there is something perfect about the form and performance of songs that is above and beyond anything that has ever been achieved through painting or sculpture.  It might seem outlandish for me to say that, as a painter by trade, but it is something that I truly believe even though I will never even begin to understand it.

AB: Well, we aren’t all exclusively musicians: Dax and Andrea are very talented visual artists and Dax is a trained puppeteer; Stevie animates and makes video games; Qarly is trained in physical theater and she is quite good at it; Jason is primarily interested in film and aspires to ride a unicycle; I nurse a secret desire to write and I am working on a degree in Mathematics and a degree in Philosophy.  But, to answer the question why music? All art, at its best, has the capacity to transform its audience I think it is the possibility of being effected on a profound level that makes art valuable. Visual art and poetry cut the deepest, but music has the sharpest blade. So we are just lazy artists.
 
Do you feel being a musician has changed you as a person? Do you respond to situations differently having a musical outlet for expression?

SH: That would be putting it lightly. Being a musician has affected my life as much as, if not more than, anything else. Its effects on my personality, thought process, politics, philosophy, etc. are so far beyond “influence” that the term is irrelevant. It’s who I am, top to bottom, since before I can remember.

AB: I listen to the rhythm of phrases with much greater attention than before I started writing songs and I seem to hear the musical potential of almost every object I encounter. It is actually kind of distracting.

DT: When I’m confused or lost or lonely or afraid, I sit somewhere where I think that no one can hear and me play my accordion and scream as loud as I can.  I don’t understand how people who don’t play accordions can make their way through life.

How is it different watching CC live as opposed to listening to a CD? Describe both experiences, what kind of effect are you trying to create?

DT: Watching people play live is an activity that is, at its core, entirely different from listening to a recording.  A recording is an ephemeral space, a record, a static object.  Being in the presence of musicians as they perform their music is an activity, fleeting, irreproducible.   Personally, I focus on how we craft the audience’s experience for live performances.  That songs can bridge both of these worlds mystifies me, however, and I am glad that the band, collectively, is interested in both.

SH: I love producing and recording albums because you get to create this immaculate, fictional space for the songs which becomes a standard by which any other interpretation is judged. Recordings are probably my best form of expression, and I try to make them as fun, unique, and full as possible. But a live performance is unique every time, and has the potential to be a more intense experience for both us and the audience.

AB: We try our hardest to make the experience of seeing a live show and the experience of listening to an album complement each other. During performance we often incorporate stilt walking, puppetry and other performance art – I throw myself into the audience with a megaphone and generally try to incur personal injuries. But we also put a lot of work into instrumentation and writing. I want make music which surprises the listener on every listen. I don’t think I’m there yet. But I’m trying.

Does your band have any kind of overall themes, messages, sensibilities, or just topics or motifs stylistically or lyrically to which you keep returning? I notice some kind of fascination with old-style technology/creativity/the Romantic Frankenstein-esque spirit (in a positive sense) with Descartes’ Daughter and the performance piece about the cartographers.

JS: I think most of us are fascinated by the pre-industrial revolution world. Before things were mass produced, you might find an enormous amount of work went into things as mundane as a chair, and they looked beautiful.

AB: We are nostalgic for something that never happened. We are caught up in the act of trying to remember a past we can only faintly recall.

DT: Our interest in natural sciences, weird Americana, and forgotten technologies might make us seem nostalgic and escapist.  If you ask me, however, I believe that we aren’t necessarily interested in the past as much as we are interested in uncanny experiences of wonder.  Researching the-past-that-never-was is just a great way to become mystified.

Share some stories from your travels and live performances…favorite memories? Funniest thing that has ever happened to you on the road, most poignant memory, etc? Anything interesting in how others respond to your music? What do you hope listeners get out of Corpus Callosum, if anything in particular?

QC: My very first show with Corpus Callosum was after one practice with them. I had heard only a fraction of the songs that were to be performed, really – I had only heard the 2 or 3 songs I was to play on. I sat patiently at the back of the stage as the band moved into the second song “Death Message”. At the time, I had no idea what to expect of the band. After a few minutes the song escalated rapidly and Avery began yelling and flailing violently (if you’ve ever seen us live, you probably know just what I’m talking about). I sat with eyes wide and thoughts like ticker tape through my mind: “What. Have I gotten myself into.” I questioned my sanity and scanned the okay-ness of everything that had brought me to that point. Avery and his mania was coming closer. I tried to calm myself and thought surely, this was part of the show and I ought not to worry. That’s when Avery, unintentionally, knocked an amplifier, a mere foot or so away from me, directly onto his guitar that had been laying innocently on the ground, smashing it. Oh dear. I will surely not forget the day when I learned, along with the rest of the audience, why the Corpus Callosum tag line is, “To Confuse and Terrify.”

How has your music changed over the years, and where do you see the creative spirit taking you in the future?

QC: I would definitely like to tour internationally with CC.

SH: One important thing that has happened in the music scene in general since I joined the band is that many of the “quirkier” instruments we play or used to play have become commonplace. It’s against my very nature to be satisfied with following trends, so I think we’ll be spending lots of effort on evolving and finding new sounds and styles. We’re already brainstorming and building new instruments. We’re also slowly introducing some electronic instruments to the full lineup.

DT: In the last few years I have become rather absorbed in learning puppetry.  This is already permeating what we are doing in Corpus Callosum, and I hope that we continue to imagine fantastic ways to bring objects to life during performances in a way that embellishes the songs we play.

Corpus Callosum’s contact information and some of their latest music are available here: http://www.corpus.cc/music.

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