“When I’m not sleeping, I’m making music,” says Gayle Ellett, co-founder of the legendary Djam Karet, from his home amid the sweeping countryside of Soutnern California. “Music makes life less painful.”
Always the generous type, Gayle took some time to sit down, contemplate my questions and answer them candidly and elaborately.
Over the past 35 years he’s composed and recorded a wide array of music, from improvised experiments with no commercial potential at all [‘No Commercial Potential’ (1985) was Djam Karet’s very first release], all the way to world-exploring library music and international film and TV soundtracks.
He recently released his second album with improvisational jazz-outfit Hillmen [listen on Bandcamp]. And is currently recording the newest Djam Karet album, to be released in 2019. “We are very self-indulgent”, he says of the band that fires the imagination of eclectic music aficionado’s since 1984. “Really, we make music for ourselves and everyone else can go fuck off.”
If not commerce, what do you aim for as a musician?
GAYLE ELLETT // “I hope to, one day, be the peers of my idols. I want to make ‘top-shelf’ albums. I don’t want to sound like our idols, but I do want to make music that is as visionary and special as the great albums I heard in my youth. Djam Karet follows this philosophy to this day.”
“The recordings are the goal, they are the challenge. If we like the music we make, then we are happy. And if no one buys it, then we will still be happy to make albums, but we wouldn’t release them on CD.”
Which bands or musicians blew your mind when you were a kid?
“When I first heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’ in 1967, I was 7 years old, and it really freaked me out. That album formed wondrous visions of faraway places in my mind, created by these new living gods we called The Beatles. I realized than that music can be as vision-inducing as film or TV. That really impressed me.”
“Having Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ on our home stereo in 1968 also really freaked me out. But I was also very impressed with highly vocal groups like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, and the trumpet music of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Basically, the popular groups from the 1960’s.”
“Back then, we only knew about a group’s recorded sound: their LPs and what we heard on the radio. For us, there was no live-music, showmanship or entertainer aspect to music, as we know now. No huge stages with fire and lasers, or videos of big houses, girls and dancers. Music was only music. Period. Maybe that is why I love recording so much, and why I have no interest in playing live. I hate being an ‘entertainer’.”
“We want to create mini-movies in your mind” (Gayle Ellett)
Talking about vision-inducing music, Djam Karet music has been praised by fans and critics alike for its cinematic qualities, which even inspired you to name your latest album ‘Sonic Celluloid’ (2017). What comes first, the music or the titles?
“The music always comes first, the titles last. When you do not have lyrics, finding good titles is really difficult. And sometimes they’re probably not very accurate. Usually, there will be a temporary title while we work on the song, like Chuck’s Tune, or TangerineDream thingy. Later, we try to find a real title. A very hard thing to do!”
“I think the filmic atmosphere sets us apart from other instrumental acts. Very often, the focus is on soloing. Or the music is intentionally boring, like new age. But we want our music to concentrate on the evolving composition. With this approach, we are trying to tell stories, and create unique environments. We want to create mini-movies in your mind.”
It’s funny then that it was an image that first piqued my curiosity about Djam Karet: the iconic, Residents-like guitars-for-heads promo shot that became your official band photo. What’s the story behind that pic?
“I have a Masters Degree in Fine Art. And I thought that the ‘guitar heads’ image would be unique, and show that we are a band, not individual players. Often, if a magazine is going to use one band’s photo, they’ll pick that one, because it is so unique.”
“In a ‘typical’ band photo, all members are standing by the railroad tracks in leather jackets looking unhappy! Or maybe they are all looking straight up into the wide-angle camera above them. Our photo is more unusual. And we’ve had great success it.”
All these years, you have been the only full-time professional musician in the band. How do you keep the Djam Karet train on track?
“With a whip and a baseball bat. Just kidding! Usually, the guys in Djam Karet want to keep making new records, so it is easy to keep them on track and motivated. Anyone who does not want to play on a certain record, does not need to do it. We are flexible, and easy-going.”
“Most of us have side projects as well, so we are all doing different things musically. But Djam Karet is our main vehicle for making music. I currently play in seven bands. One of these is with my Texas friends Herd Of Instinct. And our label Firepool Records releases their albums. They are great! I also play in a contemporary Arabic music group, a Swedish shoegaze band, and many others.
You arguably created more music outside of the band than with the band. What are you most proud of?
“I am most proud of my work with my acoustic World/Americana group Fernwood. Our third album, ‘Arcadia’, is the best composed and recorded album I have made so far.”
“I also think ‘Sonic Celluloid’ came out really well. Every year I get better at mixing and producing, so I usually like our newest albums the most. But certainly ‘The Devouring’ [released 1997 – Ed.] is a real fan-favorite.”
When starting Djam Karet in 1984, what was the musical climate in California like? To an outsider, it feels like Djam Karet carved out a path of its own between the LA studio scene, heavy metal and hardcore punk.
“The 1980’s here in Los Angeles were somewhat like it is today. Los Angeles has always been a bad place to perform music. Many clubs want you to pay them, just to play there. They want you to, in advance, buy 100 tickets from them for $10 each ($1,000!) and then the band is supposed to re-sell them for more money to their fans. But we never do that. We focus instead on making our own albums, in our own private studio. We’ve always been ‘outsiders’, that was our goal, so we are used to this condition!”
“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer!” (Gayle Ellett)
So LA was tough. How did you get your following in the early days? What was your strategy?
“We never had a strategy of getting any fans or followers. Really, we only played for ourselves, and for the first few years all of our music was totally improvised. But we lived in a college town, Claremont, California, so we could play at a lot of casual art openings or college parties. But I don’t think we really had any fans. That’s not what Djam Karet is about.”
“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer! Think about how many instrumental rock bands there were in the 1980’s – not counting bands dominated by one guitarist, like Joe Satriani. There were none. It is an extremely unpopular style of music. And we know that. But for us, it is really fun and challenging to compose and play it.”
You live in the countryside town of Topanga, not that far removed from downtown LA. How does that particular geographic context influence your sound?
“It is very quiet and calm where I live, here in the coastal mountains of Southern California. I live about 4 km from the Pacific Ocean, so I often see dolphins, whales, sealions and other sea creatures as I drive along the coastal road into Los Angeles. I hear more animal noises, than cars.”
“We are removed from the busy life of the city. So it does influence me personally, and the music I make. I am a country person. Always have been. I grew up spending my summers at our family ranch in New Mexico, raising cattle. So I have a great appreciation for the country life. It is the calming ingredient that I need. Many of my neighbors have horses and chickens. I feel very fortunate to live here in Topanga!”
Back in 1991, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ and ‘Burning The Hard City’ were released as non-identical twins, separately but simultaneously, with musically very different characters. L’Un N’Existe Pas Sans L’Autre, said the notes of both albums. Do you recall why you named those albums the way you did?
“If you want to make a really good album that is 60 minutes long, then it is wise to record about 90 minutes of finished music, and then select the best songs for your hour-long album. Some of the music was rock, and some was more electronic. So we thought that there was almost two albums worth of music there, that we could divide into two different styles. We then wrote some more music, resulting in two very different sounding albums. Probably no one loves both CDs, but we do not care about being popular. Really we don’t care about making music our ‘fans’ will like. That’s not what we do.”
“Anyway, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ was a good title for the spacey-electronic music on that album. While the music on ‘Burning’ was very aggressive. Of course, at that time, we were at war with Iraq – the first Gulf War. So there were many war images on TV and on the news. So that title seemed like a good fit for that album’s music and the era it was made in.”
Prog rock, new age, jamband, techno-tribal, … Over the years, Djam Karet has been put into many different boxes. How do you feel about those categorizations?
“It does not bother me. Our focus is on making music as an art-form, not as a commercial product. We are more interested in applying the concepts of ‘theme and variation’ to our compositions, making long-form music. Often our songs are in an ABCDE-type structure: moving from one section to a new section, then to another new section, usually ending somewhere very different than where the song began.”
How would you describe your music?
“Some of our albums are electronic, and some are rock. Basically, I think we play ‘artrock’. This is a concept, more than a ‘sound’. We sort of play progressive rock, but who really knows? We love the sounds of music more than the labels! It is not for us to decide, that is for the music critics to decide. And we love music critics! We get so many great reviews, with our weird music. We are very fortunate! Oddly, we have had a lot of commercial success, with our non-commercial music.”
Initially you released cassettes and then went straigt to CD. According to the listings on Discogs, Djam Karet never released a lot of music on vinyl. Yet, both the music and artwork would lend themselves perfectly for that format. Any plans for vinyl releases in the future?
“We have released a few albums on vinyl. But they are expensive to make, and they are short, usually only about 42 minutes or shorter. Our first albums were usually about 70 minutes long. Yes, vinyl is making a comeback, and it is growing in popularity. But even now … only about 5% of world-wide sales of music, are on vinyl LP. Most of my friends do not even own a record player and a home-stereo with really big speakers – I do, but I’m rather unusual.”
“A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today.” (Gayle Ellett)
Some of your music is available of Spotify. Of course, streaming and its rewarding system have been controversial, especially if you don’t have millions of listeners. What’s your view on that?
“We make music because we want to, not for the money. So now that there is no money in music anymore, first because of Napster and stealing music, and now due to streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody, everyone expects music to be ‘free’. This does not hurt us too much, but it is killing the music industry, and killing new music. It really takes many decades to become great at making music, and there are currently many talented musicians who will soon quit making music, because they can not even afford to buy new gear. These new trends are bad for society. A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today. The future of the arts does not look good.”
You issued a lot of Djam Karet albums independently, but did sign a deal with Cuneiform Records around the close of the 20th century. What did that mean for you in terms of exposure and sales?
“Cuneiform has always been good to us. They always helped us sell more CDs than we could on our own. We even tested this in 2001 with the release of ‘Ascension’ and ‘New Dark Age’. The band privately released ‘Ascension’, but we had Cuneiform release ‘New Dark Age’, and they sold a lot more CDs than we did on our own with ‘Ascension’, even though they are ‘sister albums’, recorded at the same time. So they have been helpful to us.”
Cuneiform also re-released some of your back catalogue around that time. Did it manage to bring those early albums to a new audience?
“Yes, I think they did do that. They had a bigger reach then we did, by ourselves. So they did help us get our music to a bigger audience. Now, I think that the label is no longer alive [Cuneiform is on a sabbatical in 2018, no new releases are currently schedulded – Ed.]. It is sad, because they really promoted styles of music that would otherwise not be heard.
You’re preparing a new Djam Karet album, the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Sonic Celluloid’ due out in 2019. What can we expect?
“We’ve started on a new album, that would be somewhat like ‘Sonic Celluloid’, but with more acoustic instruments. Although we are thinking we might write a rock album instead, or additionally. Right now, we are writing some rock-based tunes. During summer, we’ll record the basic tracks for this, and we’ll see what happens. Nothing will be completed until sometime in 2019. Maybe we’ll even end up with two new albums, who knows?”
In the notes to recent releases you stress the fact that you didn’t use compression or limiting. Or in the case of ‘The Heavy Soul Sessions’: “All music was played by hand … without computer manipulation.” Do you feel technology is having too big an impact on today’s music in general?
“Take the example of modern rap. It could not really exist without modern technology. It uses computers, drum machines, clip-launchers, auto-tuned vocals, etc. But I am from an older era, a time before that stuff existed in music. I am from the old days when you had to play all of the music yourself, with your hands, the old-fashioned way.”
“There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big!” (Gayle Ellett on compression)
“As far as compression is concerned, too much of it will absolutely ruin a good record! The distortion – like a big blanket over your speakers – is horrid, and a low dynamic range makes the music sound far away and weak. So I rarely use it, or I only use a tiny bit. There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big! It’s the main knob! Just turn it up. Even for radio play, the radio stations auto-level the music in advance, using the Orban Optimod System. So there is no need to do it ourselves.”
But you do record digitally, right?
“Yes I do and I love recording onto computers. When we began making records, everything was on tape. But tape has a lot of background noise or hiss. And you always need to be very careful, because if you record too quietly you’d hit the noise-floor, and if you record too loudly it will distort. But with computers, there is a much wider dynamic range: the noise floor is extremely low, about 30dB lower than tape. So you have a much a larger space to make music in.”
Talking about rap, I sense it’s not really your favourite kind of music?
“I do not like rap music. But being nearly sixty years old, I am not supposed to like rap. It’s for the young kids of today. It is supposed to annoy older people. People that make successful music know very clearly who their target audience is. Besides, kids desperately want to be different from their parents, and music helps them achieve that sense of independence. They have very different values. So when a rapper writes about violence, sexist womanizing, cash materialism, breaking the law, fame and fortune, those values might appeal to the kids, but not to their parents or grandparents. The same was true when rock music came into being. Jazz, new age and classical on the other hand are intentionally targeted to older people or musicians. Well, that’s my view.”
You reinvigorated that view by releasing the second Hillmen album ‘The Whiskey Mountain Sessions Vol. II’, which was recorded with just four people in a room. No edits at all, just three long-form, organic jams. What are ambitions with that particular band?
“Hillmen is a group that only plays entirely improvised music. We just tune up and begin playing, with absolutely no pre-determined structure or plans. This style is very challenging and difficult to play well. And it is extremely unpopular! It is often ‘hit & miss’, sometimes it results in good music, but many times it falls flat on its face! But it is always great ear-training, great practice, and it makes you a much better player. We all play in other bands too, so Hillmen is like taking a vacation from ‘regular’ music.
Finally, what does Gayle Ellett do when he’s not making music?
“Sleep. When I am not sleeping, I am working on music. I am obsessed with music. It makes life less painful.”
Head over to www.GayleEllett.com to see how Gayle spends his waking hours.
Find out all about Djam Karet’s massive back catalogue on Bandcamp.
And tune in later to discover five great albums recommend by Gayle.