Chris Eckman – We are always troubled by the clearest choices
Pennsylvania born, Seattle-raised and Ljubljana-residing Chris Eckman is one of the busiest people on the scene, occupying various roles as a producer, Glitterbeat co-owner, writer, music entrepreneur and enthusiast, but first and foremost as a musician. He first emerged as a guitarist and a songwriter in Seattle in the early 80s, and soon became a frontman of the legendary Americana group The Walkabouts he cofounded. Together they toured extensively for three decades and released 13 albums.
During the 1990s he also formed a duo Chris & Carla with The Walkabouts co-guitarist and singer-songwriter Carla Torgerson, collaborated with the likes of Grand Willard Conspiracy, and Norwegian band Midnight Choir . He produced four of their albums between 1996 and 2003.
Fourteen years ago he moved to Ljubljana where he previously met his wife Anda and his life and work became intrinsically intertwined with the regional music scene. He has shared studio and stage with numerous musicians from this part of the world, forming new lineups with members of Croatian rock band Bambi Molesters and Slovenian garage rock group Hic Et Nunc. Along with their guitarist Bernard Kogovšek, his long time collaborator and friend, he provided one of the most memorable and magical concerts of Poezika in 2015.
In the recent years Chris has been very busy curating Glitterbeat that earned Womex’es accolades as the best world music label according to Womex for the third time in a row last year, housing exciting new world music stars such as Tamikrest, Aziza Brahim, Noura Mint Seymali, Baba Zula, Damir Imamović and many others.
He recently returned from Istanbul where he laid tracks for a new album with his international world rock trio Dirtmusic.
Eckman is also a very thoughtful observer and articulate commentator of the world we all live in, create and just trying to survive without drowning in the mud of neoliberalism, corporativism, corrupt politics and ill relations. In his wonderfully crafted essay entitled The Unreal in Real-Time http://www.versopolis.com/panorama/199/the-unreal-in-real-time , he urges us to connect fearlessly: “Instead of disconnecting, shouldn’t we, in fact, be connecting more, and connecting better? Emphatically. Passionately. With a last chance joy and a gambler’s hope. What do we have to lose? Well, in fact, everything. And if that doesn’t make us fearless, nothing ever will.”
Sometimes it only takes a song to come together and change everything. And Chris is well aware of that.
Chris, you grew up in Seattle, where the music scene seemed to be vibrant and healthy. It all exploded with grunge in the late 80s, early 90s, although Americana scene was also very present, right?
Then it wasn’t really; there were just a handful of us nationwide, not just in Seattle, and none of us called what we were doing Americana. There were inklings of it back in the early 80s in USA, but it started to gain a little bit more steam at that point (by the late 80s), and certainly by the late 90s it was already a genre. We’ve been called “Americana” and didn’t even know what that was. I guess someone invented a genre and we thought: “now they’re going to stick us in without permission”. (laugh)
How were you shaped by the greatest – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Joe Strummer? What did they offer you, what were you looking for in their music, poetry, performance, philosophy? Solace, freedom, inspiration?
I think all of those things. All these people mean a lot to me and meant a lot to me in my artistic development as influences. I grew up in a nonmusical family. But for my brothers and I (I have two younger brothers) music was language, this was the way we communicated, this was the thing that bonded us at a really quite young age and that was something we shared and no one else in our house understood.
Things were being communicated to us through records that the parents just simply didn’t get. My parents were not oppressive, not heavily religious either, but they were not in touch with that part of popular culture, so for us it was complete liberation, because it was our own private language and we were sitting, listening to crazy records by The Stranglers, things like that, and parents had no clue what we were doing.
For young boys it’s much harder to express emotions than for girls and music gives you means to channel these emotions.
That’s perfectly said, because I had almost religious conviction about different artists .I loved the stuff from Neil Young, The Stranglers, The Clash and these kind of things. It was playing to different parts of what I felt I needed. It helped me to find avenues of my own self-expression. Patti Smith was an enormous revelation to me because she redefined womanhood for me. I saw her for the first time when I was 16 years old, and I was captivated – I was afraid of her, I was in love with her, I had heavy mixed emotions, all at the same time. At 16 I didn’t know how to process them all. To me she was not just the most amazing woman I had ever seen, but the most amazing person I have ever seen. It ripped my head off. That hour and a half I spent with her at 16 while she was on stage radically changed my view of the world and what possibilities are out there. I realized at the time that this was a dividing line for me. I went to my record collection – I had maybe 50 records, 35 of them were gone that day, no longer permitted, put into closet; it was an absolute reset.
Were you familiar with Horses before you went to see her perform for the first time?
I knew about Horses, I saw the cover, but had no idea what the music sounded like. I went to the concert after I heard her third record. As I said, on the one hand my friend and I were scared to death, but it was a fantastic feeling of dread. (laugh)
Since we’re talking about giants, what’s your take on Bob Dylan getting Nobel prize for literature? What does it mean to you personally?
First you have to decide if Nobel price really matters to you personally. For me it’s also some kind of tool of the cultural elite deciding what’s in the canon, or what will be listened to or read. I’m mostly suspicious of that kind of thing, but it also means a lot to me personally, because it’s great when people who say this is not literature, get nervous. These are the people I’d like to see getting a little bit nervous. …. There was a lot of absurd criticism about this award, but his influence on culture cannot be denied. On a personal level it’s nice to see somebody from this very much a sub-genre of art – songwriting – getting some accolades outside of the narrow world of the music business. Songwriting has had such a fundamental role in culture for the last 50 years, but mostly it’s really considered lesser than poetry or prose.
Jumping few steps ahead – in 2004 you embarked on a new journey, going to Mali to produce Tamikrest first record for Glitterbeat, and new horizons opened, new friendships were forged, new opportunities arose.
I first went there in 2006, 10 years ago.
Was that to do with producing Tamikrest album?
No. First time I went with my wife Anda, for 5 weeks holiday, with no plans of doing anything music wise. I have been listening to African music since the early 80s and when I moved to Slovenia I started to go to Druga godba, Slovenian world music festival, and that really reminded me that I have to reconnect with this music. That was quite a push for me to go to Mali. We travelled around and went to the Festival in the Desert, to Bamako, to Burkina Faso, taking public transportation everywhere we went and just listen to music without understanding and it was fantastic again.
Then I went back two years later with Dirtmusic. We got invited to play at the Festival in the Desert and that’s when we met Tamikrest. They were in the tent next to us. We got there in the late afternoon, exhausted, so we all laid down to take a nap and heard this amazing music from the tent next to us, on battery powered amplifiers, with non stop 40 minute jams, and finally Chris Brokaw said: “Fuck this, I’m going over there!”, grabbed his guitar and went out the door. Hugo Race and I followed about 20 minutes later. We still slept in our tent, but didn’t leave their tent for 3 days. We just sat there, drank this highly caffeinated tea and just jammed. It was just like being 16 again. I didn’t play guitar for 6-7 hours a day since as long as I can remember. It was wonderful. Then they invited us to play on stage with them, which was a huge honor for us.
It was clear from that experience that they’ve done some recording in the small town where they’re from, Kidal, and they were not bad and then we (Dirtmusic) proposed them a reciprocal thing. We will come to Bamako and they’ll play on our record and we’ll do our best to organize a record deal and put their record together. 2009 I went there twice, in January to do Dirtmusic and 6 months later to record Tamikrest record for Glitterhouse.
Globetrotting and recording/producing albums all over the world sounds like a very exciting, privileged, even glamorous thing to do. How does it look like in reality? Tell the truth. (laugh)
That place is very raw. There are no toilets in Festival in the Desert. People think that because Robert Plant and Damon Albarn were there that there must be executive suites. There’s none. You can’t buy anything there; money is of no consequence to you, which is a really great thing. Artists are staying in the same way as the audience, and that really creates fantastic atmosphere. But these places are extremely brutal to be, you could be or you are ill most of the time from what you’ve eaten, the heat is unbearable, deadly mosquitos buzzing over you… Every time I go to Bamako I ask myself: “Do I have it in me again?” It takes a lot out of you, and it’s not that I feel sorry for myself – there are people living out there, they are dealing with that every day. I come from nearly a grotesque level of privilege compare to what they have and it sounds really lame and terrible to think like that but you can’t deny your own reality. But I travel all over West Africa in very raw ways, never with a car and hired driver. Anda (Chris’s wife) and I travelled 2500 km two summers ago from Bamako to Cotonou in Benin and it was heavy travelling, but absolutely worth it and rewarding.
How did war in Mali change things for you, your friends there and their music (production, distribution, performing)? Are there any stories you’d like to share…
It’s a really good question. It’s easy to romanticize places, but one thing that struck me about Mali is that you can’t ignore desperate poverty. There’s nothing to romanticize about that. You could also see that the social fabric was not lying in tatters on the ground. Yet even in unimaginable obstacles there was a lot of warmth and respect across ethnic lines. The war blew all of that up. It vanished and has not rebuilt since then. I was there last August and there’s nothing optimistic about the situation there. It might even be getting worse, in the sense that divisions are now fossilizing, becoming very permanent. The situation is not encouraging.
A lot of things went on in the music scene there. War was a giant disruption to
it, a straight cut, fade to black, there was no work for months and months. Then it started to get a little bit better, mainly because of the influx of foreigners that came with UN, African union; there was people with money in town, musicians reemerged out of the shadows and then the terrorist incidents happen. Things just stopped again. …
The future of Malian music is really hard to talk about because on the one hand there is no arena to be playing at. That’s a huge problem. We are almost 5 years into this now and this starts to be like half of generation. Parallel and entwined with this is when I went there in 2006 there was a very thriving cassette culture for local musicians. This was technologically going to morph into something else at some moment; they were not going to have cassettes for the next 30 years. A lot of those cassettes were put out by very, very small labels. Sometimes there would be places that had computers with internet and that guy was just a small entrepreneur on the side, releasing cassettes for three or four Malian musicians. There was something very DIY (do it yourself) about it and very direct. Musicians at least got something out of this. That is completely vanished now. One reason is the war, but the other reason is technological.
When I first came to Mali, it was dial internet, very slow, absolutely no ability to download file sharing. Now everybody (well, by saying everybody really crosses class lines) can buy Chinese knock off smart phone for 15 euros in the market. Nobody has accounts; you just buy cards with codes. From this you could start to download files. Now the way how music is mostly passed, is that you go to the market with your phone, and this guy has a whole selection of different songs. He’ll play them for you and then you take Bluetooth devices and he sends you the files. This is 100% pirated, has nothing to do with the music business at all, it bypasses artists rights.
Before the war Mali was fundamentally a peaceful society. All the countries around it have experienced upheavals, coups, and Mali had not. Now Mali is the most effected of them all.
I assume musicians are displaced as well.
Most of ones from the north haven’t moved back, north is still extremely unstable. Tamikrest go to Kidal, the percussionist still spends some time there but for the most parts they’re living in Southern Algeria. People die weekly. I know Reuters reporter, he lives in Bamako. He says that he submits the stories, but nobody touches them, because it happens week after week.
And here no one cares.
Yea. Because we’ve moved on.
We’re nearing the topic on world music and advocacy, white know-it-alls and colored, helpless, but eager and teachable locals. That was one of the ideological misconceptions word music was struggling with for quite some time. What is your take on ideological, and colonial, exploitative narratives of music business? How do we get over these, how to act differently?
It’s a huge question. When the economic differences are so vast there is a gulf there that is almost impossible to cross. I think what will ultimately solve that, is the transformation of the whole arrangement where you don’t need gatekeepers anymore (not even Glitterbeat). Music will be generated from these places, there will be increasing interconnection with the global world, local initiatives will start to communicate directly with the market and I think that is the only thing that solves it. Because otherwise it’s always – no matter how hard you try, how ethically and pure you try to be – going to be by definition out of balance.
I think there are very few bad people involved in this, but there are some outdated concepts. The one is that people from these cultures have to be protected. This one I don’t accept. I think it’s the opposite – it has to be now recognized that this is really leftie paternalism, that by definition they will always be exploited. It’s always going to be out of balance to some degree but in the broader sense it could be done in the way where everyone finds mutual advantage.
In my experience when you’re a record label, especially these days, the artists really call the shots. It doesn’t matter if they are from Kidal, Mali or from Sao Paolo, Brazil. It’s very much artist driven market and you have to keep the artist happy. It’s not respectful to them if you think that by definition they’re being exploited, it doesn’t make sense. They have other places they can go, they can walk away. To a large extent these artists are savvy, they understand this, they are deft negotiators, we’re way beyond the point, of where it used to be.
But if we think we’re being “do gooders” here, then we have something wrong. We’re providing service to artists; it’s as simple as that. Do I feel some satisfaction on personal ethical level? Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t think that what we’re doing has a broader context. But if we get obsessed with that, we’d loose the plot immediately. We’re running a business, a service for these artists, so we have to keep that very specific. It’s very easy to justify anything once you think you’re doing something good for the world, you cross the line very fast.
Everything we do has be explained, we go out of our way to explain everything. Peter Weber and I went to Bamako just to explain Tamikrest what was happening on management level, touring agencies, the new producer. We went there just for that, for two days of meetings. Just so everybody was up to date. If Peter and I cannot go to Bamako with a clear conscience, feeling proud in how we’ve handled relations, in Bamako we wouldn’t last 10 minutes. There has to be a reputation that is at least solid. We don’t do everything right, I’m sure, but on basic things as paying royalties, giving accountancy, this has to be completely transparent.
Music business acknowledges these things. For the 3rd time in a row you’ve given the award for best world music label, and you’ve been only created this label in 2012. That’s a huge deal!
I don’t want to be full of false humility, but let’s look at what that is. Those awards are based on a very objective tabulation of our artists place on European broadcast radio, mostly national radio programs. What Glitterbeat does is we put out records and every time we do so, we send 50 of them to the broadcasters who report to the chart. That’s the extent of what we do to win that award. We curate the stuff we put behind it, but at the end of the day radios are playing those records because of those artists. The artist’s deserve the award.
But other companies are doing exactly the same thing, too, sending 50 copies of albums to the European Broadcast Radio.
Curation is important. If we do anything right, it’s curation. When we first thought about putting Noura Mint Seymali out, people said that she’s too intense, it’s not this chill African music people will put on at their dinner parties. But it’s one of our most successful records, because it’s distinctive, it’s what people like in any art, it stands out, it makes its place, it insists upon your attention.
You are also a very acclaimed producer. Is there an advantage of being both, musician and a producer, when you’re working with other bands in the studio?
Good producers can come from a lot of different angels. One problem that you have when you’re a musician-producer is that you suddenly want to start to playing the instruments for everyone (laugh). There are great producers who aren’t musicians like the great Joe Boyd, one of my favorites ever. Being an artist, you get into these really intense discussions while you’re producing and I think there’s a certain credibility you can bring because people know you’ve also been there, on the other side of the glass, a lonely acoustic guitar player and nothing’s working – you’ve been that exposed and that vulnerable. I think maybe it’s that level of empathy that you bring, believable empathy, because you’ve also suffered and had your fingers aching.
Producer has a different role as technician, mix man. Nowadays it’s not as common practice to have a producer. Technicians seem to be taking over that role, as hardly anyone can afford to hire a real producer.
Yeah, it’s almost a class thing, almost only reserved for the elite now. That’s why I started to develop my own studio, because I realized I was going to get cut out of the process, I was a guy who basically wasn’t technical. I was not a technician, not a musician, I was a thing no one had a name for, so they called me producer. So I had to develop some technical chops to stay in it, started to mix records myself etc.
Do you think music is lacking something, now that the role of producer is reserved only for the ones that can afford him?
Not everybody is equally skilled in everything. For years I worked with this engineer who started in the 60s and he said: “Why was music great in 1968? You had the engineer, assistant engineer, you had the arranger, songwriter, artist…You had 6 people who helped you make it right. Now we got to the point where everybody is doing everything.”
The world is full of amazing songs, there’s no reason why these artists cannot just go and be an interpreter of songs. And now you’re even a producer, as more or less no one can afford to record outside his or her own little studio and not everyone is going to be equally gifted on all these things. In the long term this will probably start to bring things down on some level.
I never worked in the fanciest studios, but some I worked in had fantastic equipment and there’s something that happens in those rooms, it’s really hard to replicate that in improvised space. … We’re doing the best we can with what we have and getting pretty high level results – the average record sounds better than the average record in 1985, because you don’t need to get a lot of money for it. But how this creative communication works … well, there is a hole.
Producer is also a reflection of your artistic aspirations and ideas, an interpreter. As an artist alone you can only go from A to B, you cannot go outside your mind, so you need someone to guide you through the process.
Bad producers don’t understand that. The advantage of being a musician is also that you have empathy, a sense that you don’t want to treat artist the way you don’t want to be treated as an artist and you understand what that means. Like when I worked with Damir Imamović – I think intellectually he made a decision that he wanted a producer, but I don’t think he understood what it was until the second day of recording. He came to me, gave me a hug and said: “Now I get it.” I was there to fight for them, not with them. We had arguments, but it was a dialogue. When you’re arguing it’s because you’re trying to elevate them above some bad choices they’re about to make. I would take an argument a really long way, but there’s a place where I find peace and say: “It’s their record.” Sometimes in the long run you realize how right they were.
What has been going in your homeland, USA, is almost beyond belief. It seems like we’re witnessing a working class people’s revenge to economical and political establishment, among other things. The problem is that their personalized middle finger has manifested itself in a man, despised by millions in his homeland and across the world.
And racism, sexism., xenophobia – those things align neatly with anger. But Trump didn’t create this, this has nothing to do with him. It’s been there, now it’s just untapped. Things have been said in the open now that are very hard to put back in the box. We have passed the line of the acceptable discourse. Maybe we needed to. I would be absolutely terrified if I were black, or Islamic, or a woman. I am terrified for them.
These little hungry-ism monsters are getting fed really well and turning into obese giants. Pandora’s box is open.
They’re empowered. This orange haired guy has given power to them. If you forecast in the future, demographics are on the side of ending this nonsense. Whites will be less than 50% in America in 20-25 years. In California and Arizona it will be even faster than that. So this will start to reverse. We already saw the speculation when Obama won the second time there were pundits that democrats will win every presidency now because of the demographic. Apparently that wasn’t true. … There are demographic reasons; a lot of people didn’t showed up to vote. For example in the intercity of Detroit, 50% of people who voted in the election 2012 didn’t vote this time. From 20-25% of Trump supporters have never voted before, or really sporadically voted. There was always this unknown element hanging over this election.
I read your wonderful piece on Joe Strummer and the politics of hope. What is the main thing we should be doing now, in these dark times (not referring just to American politics, but the overall situation), how we should be fighting for a better world as human beings, artists, musicians? If this plundering and pillaging of the natural resources in the name of the profit whilst trampling human rights, putting people’s health and lives in danger (or just brutally eliminating them) will continue with this rate and vulgar force, we are all (or will soon become) Standing Rock.
Sometimes I feel we’re stuck in an echo chamber. Those of us who believe a certain way only talk to ourselves. That’s inevitable; the right wing is doing the same. I don’t think you can change the structure of society without either grotesque power, or widespread change of consciousness.
The way the latter happens is through engagement. I am the first to just say fuck these Trump people, I don’t want to talk to them, I don’t want to be in a room with them, but… I don’t think we can cross these lines without one-on-one engagement and that’s going to be the hardest thing to do. We’re so divisive now … I don’t have an answer to that, I think you start on very basic levels, in your communities, with your next-door neighbor; you start to find common ground. And that’s very difficult to do.
In my house growing up we had bloody conversations about politics. They were encouraged, but that was when I started to read Marx and I was very sure I had it all figured out. These are the kinds of conversations we need. We need not to lock ourselves up into our leftie journals, preaching to each other, there has to be engagement outside of that, but it’s difficult.
Democracy cannot function without education, we see that everywhere. For god’s sake, how can we talk about austerity when it comes to education!?
What can musicians do in these times?
My biggest criticism about music is that it so often seems to have no social content. Not everybody’s going to write the same song, nobody should expect that there should be a party line we should fit, but I think music needs to be less insular, that goes for popular art in general. I think we’ve already seen that’s starting to change a bit and it will be a good thing if it does even more.
The one thing I like about the work we’re doing here at Glitterbeat is that artist we work with have political positions. I remember being with Ousmane Ag Mossa (the leader of Tamikrest) the first time he came to Europe and when we were doing an interview together, the journalist asked us both a very simple question like: “Why do you play music?” I gave some long, winded, discursive, rambling answer and his was so simple “Because I want to speak for the empowerment of my people.” So clear, so simple, and so powerful.
We’re always troubled by the clearest choices. I think we have to start to make some clear choices when it comes to art. Art is never good as a manifesto, it still has to breathe, has to have life in it. But we should direct our gaze more and more to what is really going on… If it empowers you, it empowers someone else, it has that effect. … Because I don’t know what we’re supposed to do otherwise.