MicrokingdomAn expanded version of Microkingdom plays the Windup Space Jan. 12 with Jason Ajemian and the Highlife and Teenage Souls.
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You may have missed it, but 2011 was the unofficial year of Microkingdom. The trio of Will Redman (drums, percussion), Marc Miller (guitar), and John Dierker (reeds) kicked off ’11 by releasing its second full-length album, Three Compositions of No Jazz (Friends Records), a beguiling mix of (more than three) tracks spanning lulling, almost lounge-y beauty (“Aire Metal”), mutant free-improv/groove (the two-part “Gamut Runner”), and other exotic sonic flavors. Sometimes as a duo without Dierker, sometimes expanded with additional players, they went on to play shows that found them on all manner of local bills. They were sandwiched between rock bands, part of the contemporary-music concert series Mobtown Modern playing Redman’s work (he has a Ph.D in composition), subsumed into a larger improvising ensemble for the annual Red Room holiday concert—and they never appeared out of place. The three principals all have long and varied resumes in the local music scene (most prominently Miller’s membership in dadaist rock trio Oxes and Dierker’s long-standing status as one of pianist Lafayette Gilchrist’s New Volcanoes), and somehow the various permutations they’ve weathered have shaped them into an apt house band for this particular moment in Baltimore music. They sat down recently in their practice space—the basement of Redman’s Gardenville home—for a chat frequently interrupted by tangents, jokes, and laughter; an edited and condensed version begins here.
City Paper : You put out a really good record at the beginning of the year, and it seemed like you played a lot in a lot of different contexts. Was there a plan to make more of a dent this year?
John Dierker: I think it just worked out that way. What do you guys think?
Marc Miller: I think it just worked out that way.
Will Redman: We planned to put the record out. I think we planned to play a little bit more, and didn’t.
MM: I don’t think we played any more or less than usual, but maybe we somehow got more attention for it when we played, which is awesome. I mean, we played better shows and were on better bills . . .
WR: And I think we’re finally starting to sink in a little bit.
MM: I wouldn’t say that. I think we’ve tried to position ourselves . . .
JD: For world domination.
MM: . . . for a diverse setting of shows. We like to think of ourselves as a band that can fit on any bill.
CP : Well, that seems to have been what happened. You played in all sorts of contexts and didn’t seem out of place in any of them, at least to me.
WR: Thank you.
MM: Thank you.
WR: That is intended. We did a Mobtown Modern thing, and we played with [Swedish psych group] Skull Defekts, and then did the Red Room thing. But we’ve always talked about not just being a [free] improv group, that there’s something else going on.
CP : Do you think that semi-ubiquity and that attention are a function of where things are with music in Baltimore these days, or is Microkingdom just a special snowflake and you’re finally getting what you’re due?
WR: We’re a special snowflake. (laughs) Just kidding. It is absolutely that everybody in the city that likes music likes music. It’s awesome. Say something better, Marc.
MM: I wanna take what he said and find a way to phrase it better, ’cause I know what he’s saying, but it wasn’t well phrased. So if you want to write something like that and credit to him . . .
WR: No, no,
MM: I do want to say that the next record we put out will have two words on a sticker on the cover: “special snowflake.”
CP : Marc and Will, you’ve known each other since high school and played together for years during the ’90s in International Soundscape Internationale, which was sort of an indie-rock band but also did lots of improvising and extra-musical pranks, like a song with a “sit-up solo.” It occurs to me that a lot of the stuff ISI did was sort of good prep for Microkingdom. Were the seeds of the current band sown in ISI?
WR: Well, I do want to point out that at the time we had ISI, I was also playing with John [Dierker] and John Hughes in the John Dierker Trio, which played at the old Ottobar a lot . . .
CP : That’s right.
WR: . . . but we’ve all been friends for a really long time. And if you look at the other bands in the scene back then—Haberdasher and Rhinovirus, particularly, because those guys and us were close friends—now you’ve got Russell [de Ocampo, formerly of Rhinovirus] who owns the Windup Space, you’ve got Thank You in that mix, you’ve got Oxes in that mix. So all these really interesting bands and people [who are still around]. And John’s been around since, like . . . I think he worked with Frederick Douglass down at the shipyards. (laughs)
CP : So how did Microkingdom arise out of all that?
MM: Will went off and did various things, and I did various things [after ISI], and not because of bad blood but because we’re poor communicators, we didn’t talk to each for about eight years. Like I said, no bad blood, we’re poor communicators.
CP : Would you like to say that again?
WR: (laughs) No bad blood.
MM: I’m not going to dignify that with a response.
WR: But no, both Marc and I are really bad communicators, and I moved out of town . . . I think I saw you a coupla times.
MM: I would usually go to the holiday concert at the Red Room. And then I guess at the end of 2005, Will was coming back to the area, and we realized that we were both going to be in the same place and on the same page. So we started playing together. And drinking together.
JD: Drinking together. And occasionally we would play music.
CP : So what was on that page? What did you set out with in mind other than picking up instruments in the same room?
MM: Yes. Picking up instruments in the same room is what was on that page.
WR: We all had some feet in the doors of improvisation and got into this thing thinking about that diversity we were talking about earlier. Like, “I guess, we’ll improvise mostly.” And then we started composing things. And now it’s all composed. (laughs) [Editor’s note: It’s not.]
CP : Many people who know your playing, John, probably think of you as a jazz guy. How do you see this current more anything-goes climate as Microkingdom sort of fits in with it?
JD: Well, first of all, I think it’s funny that people think of me as a jazz person, because the jazz guys in town do not think of me as a jazz person. (laughs) But it seems to be a thing in the air now where people are just opening up to more types of music, I think. There’s been a lot of press about composed music and how the different schools have become more accepting of each other, and with all music I think it’s become that way. Audiences are more accepting of a wider range of styles.
CP : Microkingdom does a lot of improvising, but it also writes, plays, and records composed music. How much effort do you put into planning what you’re going to do when you play?
WR: Varying amounts.
MM: It changes from situation to situation.
WR: Sometimes we’ll say, “Oh yeah we should do this piece and this piece”—like “Aire Metal” and “Gamut Runner”—and then we only do one of them, and it comes out in the middle of something else. We did play one or two shows [this past year] where we planned to play five tracks from the record and then we did them. And then we did other shows that were looser. (laughs) And then there’s this other sense of composition, where it’s sporadic. It’s improvisation, but you’re improvising like a little song. Some kind of form. We may have just made it up right then, but it’s made up of a lot of stuff that resonates between the three of us as compadres.
JD: We work out stuff in Will’s basement—it probably averages out to be a coupla times a month. And what we do in the basement is a lot different than the live shows, because we have to play quiet down here. [Editor’s note: Redman has a family.]
WR: Which John loves.
JD: If Will hadn’t said that, I would say it. It’s a whole different thing that happens down here . . .
WR: Which we all love.
JD: . . . I’m sure that affects what we play in clubs.
MM: [Playing quietly] makes a difference in what we record, because we do all our recording here, in more restrained circumstances because of volume. As soon as we get out into the world, it does vary. At the Red Room you can play quietly, but if you’re playing at the Golden West [Cafe] or something, where you’re competing with a bar full of people talking, you can be like, “Hey, we don’t have to be quiet.” We can attack it full force.
CP : Well, and being improvisers with a bunch of compositions, you can do a lot of different things.
JD: Like superheroes.
WR: We have a giant list of song titles that we play from, all the time, whether we’re here, there, whatever. Quiet, loud, whatever it is. And the size of our band changes. We show up with music stands, or not. As the great philosopher Lil Wayne once said, respect the situation. So we do.
CP : So, coming off the unofficial year of Microkingdom, are the plans different for 2012?
WR: We just finished mixing a very exciting track for a split 7-inch that’s coming out this year. It’s got two songs on it from two different bands, both of which don’t have singers, both songs of which are covers of quasi-working-class blue-collar singer/songwriter music with guest vocalists who are fairly prominent vocalists. So that’s one thing that’s coming.
MM: We’re going to continue to do things the way we see fit, and we’re very not good at selling ourselves, so we’re just going to hope that somebody pays attention while we’re doing what we do. That’s the way I justify things to myself when my bar tab is bigger than what I got paid for playing a show.
WR: Is what? How do you justify things?
MM: What I just said. We’re being us. Doing our thing.