Perfect Sound Forever

Brian Dewan

Interview and ruminations by Domenic Maltempi
(April 2008)

In a disused sawmill and gristmill connected
by a wooden tunnel over a small waterfall

I've never seen an interview with Brian Dewan as a subject in print before. I was puzzled. Here we have this protean artist with so many different types of artistic achievements and talents under his hat. Brian's singular approach to folk music, audio-visual performances or art in general should rouse many more from their somnambulism. Dewan is a serious storyteller who delights in ephemerally inhabiting other voices, projecting points of view from the past and sometimes the future onto whatever drywall may be twitching on-by.

Brian is also adept at navigating forces that produce their own seductively creative affects upon a listener in his capacity as a maker of analog synthesizers that may be played or operate autonomously. This was not you're crazy-ass, cool-as-shit buddies' freak-folk, unwilling but oh-so-able idol, curdle-chirruping rapt gushola. There is a subversive balloon flying inside much of Mr. Dewan's work, rewarding in its radical difference from the rank self-flattery and obvious plain old bunkum of what passes as such in the world of art in general.

Dewan is that rare inimitable sort of fellow whose music and art appeals widely by virtue of its playful seriousness. Brian has worked with loads of talents, from David Byrne to They Might Be Giants to Lady Big Bird and the Oscarettes. Perhaps live more so than on record, an uncanny ability to crowbar one away from their contemporaneous preoccupations is one of the main virtues of Dewan's craft as musician/performer.

Words are pigments words are strokes and absconding sweat that sometimes dry wisely over you just before a breeze presents itself. It is this joy in such a flux in point of view that Dewan infectiously relishes on display in Words of Wisdom (his sixth album, from 2007), and in which his selections of primarily anonymous or unknown American folk artists from late seventeenth to mid twentieth century is such a rewarding choice for maker and listener of these tunes alike. W.O.W. is the first in a series called Humanatarium from New York's Eschatone label.

It largely succeeds in bringing to life various narrative soaked songs that are a funny bone impaling and heart muscle gladdening grab-bag of box-car-dining meditations and more. As fun and moving as the album is, it is the sort of work that collectively will probably not be the ardent core of many people's music collections, or even flavor of the month. Because these tunes are all steeped in peculiar story and puissant voices fermented with a remoteness they probably won't be the typical Friday evening's bike-ride-psych-up music on the way to a second shift at Fuddruckers! Well, big deal, but that's that, and slice the pickle Mr. Crisp!

From the book of Deuteronomy to the arcane bits of St. Francis of Assisi stories, Dewan will pull from many sources and utilize his skills as a film projectionist, drawer, and singer among other things to amuse, instruct and much more. Brian's I-Can-SEE filmstrips have been screened at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Modern Art Oxford among other distinguished institutions.

(Let's kicky that rabbit now)

PSF: Where are you from? When did you move to New York?

BD: I was born in Boston, grew up in Lexington Massachusetts, moved to New York in 1987. In 2006 I moved to Catskill, NY which is where I live now.

PSF: One of your latest recordings is the billowing pleasure Words of Wisdom. What should one expect from this series as a whole that coagulates them in a certain common purpose/aim? Was there any particular reason why you chose 'Humanitarium' as a series title?

BD: Each CD in the Humanatarium series will be a collection of varying stripes: temperance songs, school songs, Hymns, folksongs ancient and modern, institutional music, advertisement and persuasion, ditties, jingles, and popular music. By naming the series "The Humanatarium," I wanted to evoke a museum or some kind of large public repository of human artifacts, a kind of variety show of points of view manifest in song. Most of it will be confined to songs in English.

PSF: One of my first exposures to you as an artist was from a CD-ROM (given with Cabinet Magazine, Issue 5, Winter 2001/02, as part of a themed section of that issue focusing on Evil). I understand that you have done other projects similar to this where as you described the project: a narrator reads from chapters of certain Old Testament books as one views colorful modern illustrations.

BD: I've been making filmstrips since 1986 and I'm still making them. Some of the scripts are folktales or biblical texts but I write most of the scripts. I've been showing them at the Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn.

PSF:Do you have an aesthetic fascination with the peculiar speed and bundle of sensations that visits many upon experiencing the presentation of a filmstrip. If so would you describe what this fascination consists of?

BD: Seeing filmstrips in grade school was certainly an indelible experience, I remember them more generally than specifically. I love the pace- it alters one's sensation of time, and it is predicated on a different notion of how people will absorb what is before them than the assumptions that govern the pace and cadence of most modern video editing. My favorite aspect of filmstrip presentations are the varieties of subjective points of view that are presented as fact, that the narrator by turns can be cajoling, admonishing, confidential, frank, stern, benign. Filmstrips are an economical form of canned pedagogical theater.

PSF: Your songs are often full of a buoyant crispness; a mirthful pinching that sometimes betrays their darker fingertips. Would you mind identifying something else that you have created where the underlying current is permeated with a certain sense of evil or an eventual 'fall?'

BD: I did a watercolor once... it was really a painting of a large scale, concrete spillway on one side of the Hoover Dam, this huge drain that goes down into the earth, with a concrete railing above it and brown and gray streaks of water-stains and green streaks of oxidized copper going down this hole at the bottom that slants downwards. In the painting, you can't see any evidence of the dam so it just looks like a well-engineered municipal entrance to Hades. It was in some show. I'll have to get it back one of these days.

PSF: You once responded to a question regarding what you named certain electronic pieces you create/put together with your cousin Leon Dewan this way: 'We don't really have names, that it was more like growing plants on stage and seeing how they turn out.' Could you explain what propels you to use this analogy?

BD: The horticultural aspect of the kind of electronic music Leon and I like to make is the result (or yield) of rhythmically contrasting lines that are contrapuntal, whether they are on a metrical grid of integers or just flowing freely in time. Making music that's more of a process of setting things up and letting them go, the combination of being in control and not being in control, a lot of play in the steering, disperse things, grow clumps, thin out brambles.

PSF: You had once told a radio host that you're experiences in the 4H Club is what really got you into songs. This turn of the century club stressed the needs of young people, promoting a study of the natural world. The four 'H's' represented on the four leaf clover symbol (originally 3!) use to originally stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Hustle. After 1911 'Hustle' was enigmatically replaced by 'Health.' How old were you when you started attending this club and what if anything in particular about the 4 H Club inspired the love of creating music/art? Also, is it true that there is a secret shadow 4 H club that never acknowledged the elimination of the fourth clover standing for 'Hustle,' and that clandestinely campaigns for its return?

BD: The 4-H camp I went to was headquartered in a disused sawmill and Gristmill connected by a wooden tunnel over a small waterfall. I never knew that "Hustle" was one of the 4 H's, nor did I know about its being changed to "Health" and the ensuing controversy. I like that in 2011 we're going to see the controversy flare up rekindled for the centenary of the change. Maybe I can get in on some of the action, have a spunky, wrathful campfire and get the 'Hustle' back into the 4-H. I wasn't aware of its origins as the 3-H either! Adding the fourth H made them luckier, whether it was 'Hustle, Health, Hubris, or Hydrogen,' four leaves on the clover trumps the three-leaf clover forever.

PSF: I envision a 72-hour concert where fictional national anthems would whip up a temporary imaginary patriotic frenzy. Just as the last hooray-key chain was sold at the liberty kiosk, the whole business evaporates like so many gassy-jokes in a New England steak-house. Would you consider performing at such a fictional happening? What would be an ideal instrument for an anthem?

BD: Marathon concert events scare me- they last too long and it's a kind of musical detention camp except that people are permitted to go in and out to the bathroom all the time and there's very lax security in keeping them in if they try to escape. I love the thought of whipping up a temporary patriotic frenzy. The trouble is if all the national anthems are artificial, no one will get whipped up about them unless they've been to a special camp where trainers make them fall in love with an artificial anthem. If a national anthem doesn't have words, it isn't fully an anthem, it's a national melody, and has no words of praise or loyalty for the vocal chords to be involved in, particularly if it is sung without instruments. The ideal instrument for an anthem is a mass of human voices raised in song.

PSF: If you could take one state, lop off a hunk of it creating a sovereign entity, rename it, create state birds and the rest of it, would you opt to create the first electronic national anthem, or would you feel compelled to write a national anthem with words? Also, what state would you carve up?

BD: A very appealing thought indeed, a new state with state birds and all. I'd say the anthem must have words and be sung, although that doesn't mean you can't have an electronic anthem issue from a pole every day at noon. If I tried to cut up a state, there would be an uproar and a lot of unhappy people, and rightly so. Rather than take over other states, I will be happy to take over a decommissioned base, either Sandy Point, Plattsburgh AFB, Hanscom AFB (After 2011) or the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Being military bases, they are not officially a part of the state of New York, the state of New Jersey or the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

PSF: Did you ever lose sleep because of Captain Kangaroo?

BD: I never lost any sleep because of Captain Kangaroo. He was excellent, like Captain Beefheart- both of them natural born poets. He had a peculiar and unencumbered imagination, as did his early TV contemporary the rakish Ernie Kovacs, except that the Cap'n was expressly addressed to children. He was almost taken off the air back in the fifties, the network was going to cancel him and put on a morning news program, but then the ratings came in and they found out that he was in second place, between the other networks' news shows. So they let him stick around. I love the Cap'n. He was good to everyone, and he was better than the lunatic cuckoo sons-of-bitches the surrealists.

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