Thursday, March 1, 2012

Record Collector, Executive Producer Christopher King Talks "Aimer Et Perdre" And Much More

Christopher King is the executive producer of the recently released, 2-CD set, Aimer Et Perdre, which is available now via the Tompkins Square label. Mr. King has an impressive history of both collecting 78s, as well as assembling some remarkably beautiful, and thoughtfully assembled box sets and collections of very rare recordings.

In addition to his latest collection, Aimer Et Perdre, which features artwork by Robert Crumb,  Mr. King has passionately produced such incredible collections as the highly acclaimed People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938 (Tompkins Square), Charley Patton: Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues (Revenant), The Bristol Sessions (Bear), and Mama I'll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin (Tompkins Square).

I recently had the honor of speaking with Mr. King about his experiences as a record collector, his career as a producer, and his passion for sharing some indisputably remarkable recordings with the world. The highly detailed works that Christopher King has produced is nothing short of true treasures. Each project King has offered is a culmination of music, art, and literature.

It was an absolute pleasure working with Mr. King on this interview, in the hope of offering fans of his collections a glimpse of the man behind the work, as well as spark the curiosity of new listeners just discovering these collections. I encourage all of you to investigate the work that Christopher King has generously shared with the world.

Here's our conversation: 

When and how did you begin collecting records?

Christopher King: I first started collecting 78s during high school in Bath County, Virginia, where I was born. My dad, Les King, was an intense collector of all things old and beautiful, including upright music boxes, antiques, books, 16 mm film, Victrolas, and, of course, old 78s. He was a local music teacher (in the days when the teacher would drive 20 miles out into the country to give lessons), a musician, a sort of tinkerer, and repairman of old things.

So, he'd play old 78s for me when I was younger, and I was strongly captivated by the music. It all seemed so sweet and sad to me. I'd go out on weekends with my dad to look at flea markets, yard sales, junk shops and we'd always come back with stacks of old things, including 78s.

Mostly these were old hillbilly records from the 1920s and 1930s: Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole, the Carter Family. There were, of course, very fortuitous stashes of 78s that I junked that radically altered my perception of old music, and the drive to acquire them, such as junking a very nice stack of records on my grandparents land.

Which artists and albums ignite your passion for collecting, specifically 78's?

Probably the string bands from Georgia sparked the initial fire for collecting old 78s: groups like the Skillet Lickers, Cofer Brothers, and Fiddlin' John Carson. A lot of people became interested in prewar blues and hillbilly due to the Harry Smith anthology, but I didn't discover that set until I was well on my way to building a pretty satisfying collection. I would say that over the years my interests have focused on the more obscure, neglected artists and genres.

How has your passion deepened and guided your life's work?

Christopher: Well, I'd have to to answer that question in two ways:

First, there is a necessary tension between exploring why I am moved by a particular artist, or sound, or genre, of old music, and just accepting that this music holds an irresistible power over me. It is that fragile balance between curiosity and acceptance that produces the most meaningful collections. It is like a movement from seeking meaning or explanations to seeking the impulse for why there should be a desire for meaning or explanation. This constant play between inquiry and acceptance is in practically every collection, meaning: how much do you disclose and how much do you leave open for others to be drawn in?

Second, I find that this old, quaint, sweet, and obscure music has curative properties. I'm not saying that it is a panacea for all things. This music was not created or intended to enrich corporations, or to be coldly dissected by academics or scholars, or to make people appear hip or cool because they possess this obscure stuff.

This music was intended to uplift the listener, to propel them to dance, to cry, and to experience some deep emotional or physical reaction. So, maybe part of my life's work is to make this antiquated, yet valid notion of catharsis though music more accessible and palatable to a wider group of people. A necessary by-product is "cultural preservation", but that is certainly not my main intent.

Can you briefly discuss how you got started in re-releasing recordings? What inspired you and what were some of your projects?

I got started reissuing these old 78s professionally when I began remastering for Dave Freeman of County Records and Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records. At the time, it was sort of a natural extension of both collecting these records and making mixed tapes of them for friends and other collectors.

Probably my biggest inspiration for doing this kind of work would be Rich Nevins of Yazoo Records and Dave Freeman of County Records. They, and dozens of other collectors worked tirelessly to locate the best-known copies of old 78s, and then present them as tastefully and clearly as possible.

So much of your work has influenced the likes of artists such as Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, etc. Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists that have been inspired by these past recordings that you so highly regard?

Christopher: Jeez, I don't know. I'm unaware of how I could influence other artists other than those that pick up the collections and attempt to assimilate some of the songs, or maybe just the spirit of some of the songs. I know that Dom Flemons, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is deeply into this music, as is John Heneghan, Nathan Salsburg, and Frank Fairfield. All fine artists.

What is your approach to collecting?

Christopher: I get profoundly obsessed (imagine, a record collector becoming obsessed!) when I encounter an artist or an ethnic genre such that I seek out, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, the best possible copies of all of the extant 78s along with photographs, biographies, details.

For instance, a few years ago I junked some Albanian 78s in Istanbul. They struck me as so otherworldly, as so scary, and dissonant, and sublime, that I aggressively sought out as many records as I could find (and they are rare!). Now I have over one hundred Albanian 78s. It led me to investigate the music of Epirus (Northern Greece), which has very similar vocal and instrumental approaches as Albanian music. So now I have almost two hundred 78s from that particular region. It is, hopefully, a never-ending obsession.

I would say, also, that the particular approach I have to both collecting and re-issuing these recordings is a "total experiential package," i.e., a gift that is full of images, music, and a highly personal, subjective theme. It is the surprise that the reader/listener encounters when they realize there is a fusion of historical with personal in my collections.

It is a stumbling across something both familiar and alien. In a way, it's sort of like my obsession with etymology. You know, if you are interested in the origin of the term "stool pigeon", and then after you investigate and discover the source of the term, you are both confronted with an historical and objective meaning, but also with a very personal and deeply sad conclusion that says more about humanity than it does about language.

In addition to being a music fan and collector of recordings, the projects that you have been involved with have been a combination of audio, visual, and literary elements, culminating to create a very unique, and deeply immersible "experience" for the listener-viewer-reader. Can you talk a little bit about your own philosophy, motivation, and passion for creating such unique works and collections (as opposed to simply a CD set of reissues w/ a brief booklet kind-of-sets)?

Christopher: The most impressionistic, and satisfactory, collections that I have done, such as Aimer Et Perdre, Mama I'll Be Long Gone, and People Take Warning! are sourced from a deep impulse that I have to understand why I am moved by a particular set of sounds or artist or theme or ethnicities. They are subjective inquiries grafted onto something "objective", like a strange musical-historical chimera. The best collections are not didactic in nature, they are both exploratory and engaging.

As this modern age progresses, people become less and less engaged with each other, their friends, and their culture. People have become more engaged with their digital devices and social networking "tools". They are removing themselves from passionate exchanges of ideas and becoming, frankly, banal and incurious, and bland by products of popular culture. So, most of my projects attempt to engage totally, if just fleetingly, with the listener.

In other words, I wish that for an hour or two, we can sit and listen to these recordings, read the translations together, gaze at the artwork or images, and arrive at some sort of plateau of understanding together. When I have friends over to the house, and we listen to 78s, look at the pictures of the artists, and talk about the meaning of the lyrics, it is a completely immersed experience with the music. It's not listening to the music while you wash the dishes, or walk the dog, or try to impress the girlfriend.

All pretenses are relaxed, and for a very short time, we have the opportunity to commune with the long-gone past, to participate with something lost that perhaps we should still have. It is this dialogue that I wish to create with my collections: posing more questions rather than putting forth some rigid structure.

The film Spectres Of The Spectrum by Craig Baldwin has been fairly influential in my approach. In it, survivors of some devastating apocalypse (which is sort of how I view our current cultural existence) revolt against the status quo that has deprived them of their visually and aurally recorded history and heritage.

The heroes of the story attempt to reclaim these discrete frequencies by tapping into the lost sounds, electrical currents, and metaphysical vibrations that could not be controlled by the prevailing culture. It is told using much stock footage from the 1930s to the 1950s and it has an extremely engaging appeal to me.

Can you tell us about your collaborators and the most memorable/ rewarding aspects of working with them?

Christopher: I collaborate with so many collectors, scholars, and writers that it is very hard to pin down any one that is more rewarding than the next. It is the generosity, foresight, and overwhelming good will that is pervasive throughout the ranks of people with which I work.

Most of the collectors and labels that I work with have no concern at all about self-aggrandizement. They do not seek to be hipster taste-makers or exclusive holders of some cultural and musical heritage. They simply love the music intensely and wish to do good with it. This is particularly so with Tompkins Square. Josh Rosenthal (the owner) trusts my instincts and judgment, and so we have produced many beautiful, moving collections.

I would say that the one collaborative affair, that is ongoing, and that is extremely rewarding, in a panorama of ways, is my relationship with Susan Archie. She is the genuine article, an artist in the highest sense. She has a natural, intuitive sense for what I am seeking, visually, to accomplish with a given collection. Such things are rare in this world.

What do find most rewarding from these experiences both in-process (collecting material, compiling, collaborating with visual artists/ archivists, and writers) and also when reflecting upon on the finished works?

Christopher: The unexpected emotional states that a given collection can take me to and the cacophony of reactions from people that engage in these collections, and the heartbreak of it all. 

When and how did you first get turned onto the work of Charley Patton?

Christopher: First, when I got a "Before The Blues" collection on Yazoo when I was in college.  It wasn't shortly thereafter that I acquired my first Patton, an E+ copy of "Down The Dirt Road" b/w "It Won't Be Long."

Can you discuss the formation and process of the Charlie Patton collection, Charlie Patton: Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues

Christopher: I wouldn't be able to speak much to this.  I was merely hired by Dean Blackwood, on Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records recommendation. If anything, Dean believed that I could tap into the grooves and unlock certain aspects of Patton's playing and singing that were not previously achieved. So, I guess I was sort of a sonic archaeologist. To this end, I believe that I was successful.

It is a VERY elaborate set. What do you think the packaging, presentation, and wealth of information and recordings offers both longtime fans and newcomers alike?

Christopher: I think it's like honey to a bear or a scantily clad woman to a weak-minded man. It is hard to resist such an abundance of riches when you see it.

Could you pick a favorite recording of Charley Patton?

Christopher: I'd still say, after all these years, "Down The Dirt Road" because Patton pulls out all the stops with this performance. It sounds like he is playing for his life.

I'd like to discuss People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938. It was released as such an all-encompassing and elaborate set of music, artwork, and words (intro by Tom Waits). I'd like to ask you to briefly take us through it's creation and your experiences working on the set.

First, how did the idea and concept of this project present itself?

Christopher: It came to me in three ways: First, having lost my father and my brother in a very untimely and tragic manner, I sought to make sense of it all.

Second, I had a dream, a dream of when I was a child going through old newspapers in an attic that I was junking with my dad, and I came upon a local Virginia paper announcing the tragedy of the Titanic and the image on that newspaper was the image that I asked Matthew Greenway to paint for me which was the cover art of the collection. I am not sure if it was a dream or not.

Third, I stood back from my collection of 78s and wondered why I had so very many old records dealing with murder and natural and man-made disaster.

When you decided to take on the project, and begin developing it, did the three themes come first: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Man (and Woman), or did your individual song selections steer you towards categorizing the tunes to themes?

Christopher: The three themes came first. It's like making a├»oli or veal stock. At first, it seems unnatural or unlikely, but as you go through the motions, it all makes perfect sense and holds together flawlessly.

Was there a song that guided this process, and/ or defined the three volumes for you?

The underlying statement, "People Take Warning!" is voiced by Blind Alfred Reed, Henry Whitter, and Ernest Stoneman, on three different songs, as spoken or sung asides on the three different discs.

Can you describe the process and selection of the artwork, packaging, and connections between the visual and audio material?

Christopher: It all began as a dream and, more or less, ended as one. It was a perfectly conceptualized and actualized collection.

How did Tom Waits get involved for the introduction?

Christopher: I asked him to write the introduction for me.

I'd like to conclude by discussing your latest project for the Tompkins Square, Aimer Et Perdre.

Can you start by how the notion/ idea began for the set, and take us through your process of bringing the recording together?

Christopher: It all started with my reaction to People Take Warning! and events surrounding that collection, the emotional tsunami and the dark and stormy weather that it created. It was an "answer to People Take Warning! in a way, but also a larger set of questions. Like a lot of these things, the records were already on my shelf, and wanted to be listened to in this manner.

The 78 by Joe & Cleoma Falcon "Aimer Et Perdre" started off the set with it simultaneous feeling of joy and despair from the singular human emotion of love, and all the consequences that follow. Everything sort of flows from that one disc including the masterpiece "La Valse LaPrison" by Bellard & Riley. The Ukrainian, Polish, and Lemko records fit like gloves around this universal notion of abandonment and a longing for home. Once it is listened through, attentively with the notes, translations, and images, it becomes uncomfortably clear.

Can you describe how Robert Crumb got involved, and his contributions to the collection?

Christopher: Robert is a friend and we share similar feelings about this music that we love.

What's coming up next for you?

Christopher: I'm working on a collection of Albanian 78s called Don't Mock The Afflicted. I am also working on a collection of Epirotic (Northern Greek) 78s called Five Days Married And Other Laments as well as a collection of Greek Demotic (Village) music called Why The Mountains Are Black and a collection of the sublime, scary, beautiful Epirotic fiddler, Alexis Zoumbas. All of these have artworks by R.Crumb.

I am also working on the complete recordings of Arizona Dranes, and a magnificent three CD collection of prewar gospel and sanctified 78s, both of which are for Tompkins Square. I am particularly excited about a series of LPs that I am producing for Angry Mom Records in Ithaca, New York, including an LP version of Aimer Et Perdre.

Finally, I'm working on a collection of short stories, parables, and anecdotes entitled Dead Wax. It seems that I have an abundance of collections on the horizon.

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