Rightly or wrongly, we often try to frame the artistic aspirations of all those bands, all those musicians who make all that great music that has enhanced our lives throughout the years, within the generally non-artistic terms of a “mission statement.”
Rarely do bands make it as easy to deduce such a mission statement as do Canada’s lightsweetcrude – a band that actually has a mission statement. To wit:
“This collection of music exists to celebrate the Raga – that most ancient, most perfect set of instructions and specifications with regard to musical mood, movement, and pitch … and to fuse it with Western sounds, forms and vibes. Raga-fusion. The word Raga comes from the Sanskrit word for colour, rang, and we are often asked to imagine the Raga as being a sonic means to colour the imagination or mood, or both. Every Raga has its own shade, its own distinct hue, a proper time of day to best evoke it, and a family or two to whom it can be said to ‘relate’. Some are a serious call to action and devotion, and some ask you to relax, turn off your mind, and listen to the colour.”
In light of such a well-defined statement of purpose, it’s incredible to hear what a sense of freedom we receive from the music of lightsweetcrude on their debut, Listen to the Colour. With each listen, each of the album’s six songs truly does communicate different color, with endlessly nuanced shading. And because they’re from Canada, we sense in that color just a pleasant pinch of poutine for good measure. Delicious and satisfying.
As long as we’re using the words of others to describe lightsweetcrude, it seems appropriate to echo a description of the impact of their musical effort as something like that described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead:
“From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, not terrified nor awed.”
Be not awed, but be delighted by the sounds of lightsweetcrude, and the words of Jason Steidman, who was kind enough to answer our ridiculous questions below. Enjoy.
Is the term “world music” a useful one, in your view? Do you feel there’s something less than specific, possibly empty and perhaps cloyingly paternal about the term? Has the world contracted to the point that such a phrase has outlived its usefulness? Or do you find it’s still a necessary bit of shorthand to use when trying to introduce the uninitiated to the music if lightsweetcrude?
Being specific is always best, and if not, why not say “non-Western” or “ethnic”? That’s usually the meaning, and they are just as completely useless, blanket terms, but at least they make some sense, and have some honesty. That being said, and speaking of “honesty” … I do use the term – it is a useful term in an ice-breaking context – where being too specific, and using the word “Raga” too much might be overwhelming at first contact.
Speaking of the uninitiated, how did you yourself first become not just interested in, but dedicated to the traditional and “modern traditional” (to use another cloying phrase) music that emanates from locales and culture not native to, let’s say, Canada? What was the first album or artist that truly kindled this fire within you? How has your relationship with this music evolved over the years?
It’s a strange story, but it was a dancer that started the whole thing. I had been working on staff at a big recording studio in Toronto, and had gone freelance to work at a couple of different places. I rented the top two floors of a house in the Junction, and set up a small studio on the top floor. I got a call from a kathak dancer who wanted to come in and talk about producing a track that fused Indian and modern (at the time) dance music, and this was back when that sort of thing was all over the place, and still “fresh.” I had little experience with either, really. I wasn’t a fan of dance music (though I’d been exposed to it plenty), and apart from Ravi Shankar in the Monterey Pop Festival movie (which is incredible), I didn’t really know anything about Indian music. Still, I wanted to do the project. I thought she was serious, and I was pretty green at running my own business, and didn’t get a deposit or anything like that … I just got to work on this tune, based on a traditional melody, and she left for India for a few weeks … and when she returned, she had changed her mind. Meanwhile, I had started fooling around with ideas, using some samples from Revolver and a few other things, and I really felt I was onto something … but, left to my own devices, I had left the dance thing far behind, so she wouldn’t have approved, anyway! I was going for the sequel to Eno/Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. I had been turned onto that album by a friend in my late teens, and that was my point of reference for what I was trying to do. At one point, I tried reaching out to a musician who was involved in a local Indo-fusion project to see if he wanted to do a session, and he (perhaps unknowingly) made me realize, just by asking me a few questions to determine exactly what I was looking for … that I really hadn’t a clue about this music! That conversation was an eye-opener, and after some thought, it led me to the conclusion that A) I would need to find a teacher, and B) that I didn’t want to make recordings that were merely “dressings” or beats surrounding samples – that’s superficial gimmickry. I found a great teacher, Pakistani film composer and harmonium player Sohail Rana. Since I already was a longtime keyboard player, it made sense to me, despite the micro-tonalities of the music, to use the harmonium as my instrument. I studied with him for a while, and there was a stretch of a few years where I did little listening other than to cassettes of Mr. Rana, and Classical sitar, sarod, and vocal performances. I was in a musical vacuum for a while, trying to understand “Raga”, and believing very strongly that was going to take me where I needed to go, as corny as that sounds. There was an album that really inspired me around this time. The fire was already kindled, but Cheb i Sabbah’s Krishna Lila was a major boost: it wasn’t precisely the type of fusion I wanted to do, but it had the same respect, authenticity, and integrity I was shooting for.
How my relationship has “evolved” is a tough one! I feel my understanding has slowly grown, but I’m still at the beginning of this trip, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a lifelong thing. There’s always a “dipping your toes into the ocean” analogy used with this musical tradition. Looking back after finishing this first album, I could see that I needed to go deeper in the next round of material, especially into the micro-tonal aspects of the music, what is referred to a “meend.” I didn’t really get into that enough, except for the last tune written for the album, “Bhang Lassitude,” and there, only a little bit. I can also say that my relationship with Indian music has had a huge influence on how I listen to all music.
In what ways has the study of – or even just taking pleasure in – the raga impacted your life apart from the musical perspective? Does your interest in the unique nature of the raga extend to other arenas as well – from artistic pursuits like film and literature, or perhaps more solitary and personal ones, like politics or (gasp!) religion? What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned either about yourself or about the world since you dedicated yourself to exploring the universe of the raga?
Good question … I know this isn’t the “cool” answer, but my perspective on the universe and my relationship with nature hasn’t really been altered or developed as a result of the music. At least not in a way that is obvious to me. I have been working with it at various levels of intensity for about 10 years, so I’ll admit that it would be hard to be certain, because I have changed and my world has changed in that time. I find many concepts surrounding Nāda Yoga to be fascinating, and I do view my world in terms of sound in a big way, but this began before I found this music. Maybe there has been an influence there that’s taken me deeper in that direction, but there hasn’t been an “it” moment yet … that’s just my “normal.” The most surprising thing, funny enough, is from the religious side of things … awhile ago, I was listening to an online sermon on idolatry while collecting some voice samples for something, and suddenly, I really understood the concept for the first time. The idea of something other than the Creator being let into your heart, and held to have a supernatural power and divine beauty… I heard those words and realized – that’s how I feel about Raga! I am guilty of the sin of idolatry! I am guilty of “worshiping” it and its power and possibilities deeply. No regrets, mind you, but it was a strange feeling in that moment.
What can you tell us about the formation of lightsweetcrude? It would seem to us that a band with such a unique and focused mission statement does not necessarily form on chance – did you have a relationship with any of the other members prior to coming together under the lightsweetcrude banner? What has been the most enlightening part of your creative collaboration thus far?
Interesting. I suppose that must be true about any project with a “mandate.” lightsweetcrude was born in the studio with its mission statement. To continue my little story, I was in that “musical vacuum,” playing harmonium for a few years, and I was at a point where I understood the basic concept and workings of a few Ragas … again, there are galaxies in there to comprehend, but I was educated enough to be able to listen to and learn from classical performances, and did this for many hours everyday… and one night I was in my little home studio, and I remember I was just fooling around. I got a drum loop going very quickly, got some sounds together, played a bass line that was essentially the ascending scale of a Raga, and then played some organ (in the same Raga) to it, and there was the core of the first tune. Not close to complete, but striking in how it worked. I hadn’t figured out how things were going to unfold yet – I just knew I needed to study and learn about this music, until I could enlist the help of great players (both Hindustani and session dudes) who would be willing to go into the studio and make this happen. I hadn’t really made the connection of how one would lead to the other! I certainly didn’t think I would be playing organ, either … or possibly even playing at all on whatever was going to happen. Organ had always been my instrument, though, so it seemed honest to go there. Eventually that first track got fleshed out by various players that I had worked with on other people’s recordings as an engineer – so there’s one set of previous relationships. After uploading a few tracks that were completed in this manner, and one up on iTunes, I got a lot of great feedback online, and many questions about when the band’s next gig was! I had intended for this to be a studio project, still guided by My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts as the model, but soon I had gathered a bunch of people in a rehearsal space who I had attracted via a Craigslist post, plus Michael Kaler, a musician I had known since my late teens/early 20s from U of Toronto, but had only reconnected with just prior to putting this group together – a fortunate coincidence. So that’s the second previous relationship. The most enlightening part of working together with the live band, especially now that the lineup has stabilized, is seeing how we stretch out and reinterpret the material in a live setting. It’s always surprising to me when I think about it, but onstage, I’m the conservative one in so many ways, but I don’t think as a bandleader I have any choice – it’s my role. The rest of the band is always pushing the proverbial envelope during a show when given a chance, and if it’s unexpected, I sometimes feel myself resisting … and as we go to some new places, I feel what is happening is entirely chaotic or disconnected, but later when I hear the recordings, it’s often great. Our collaboration is helping me find a balance, and learn the meaning of “trust” in a musical context! I’m getting there …
Your album, “Listen to the Colour” contains the following words by way of explanation: “Every Raga has its own shade, its own distinct hue, a proper time of day to best evoke it, and a family or two to whom it can be said to ‘relate’. Some are a serious call to action and devotion, and some ask you to relax, turn off your mind, and listen to the colour.” Are these words meant to specifically recall the words of “Tomorrow Never Knows” … which itself recalls the popular Western translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead? Is there a song on “Listen to the Colour” that you feel leans toward the “call to action” side of the ledger? What can you tell us about the origin of the album’s opening missive (and perhaps our personal favorite), “Kaafi Funk”?
For sure the big thing about “fusing musics” is drawing connections. When I first discovered that Raga and “colour” were related in Hindi/Sanskrit, I immediately thought of that lyric. But I haven’t read “The Book Of The Dead,” though I am familiar with it. Maybe I should. “Ahir/Now” has some raucous “call to action” type of moments, especially Alexei Orechin’s very muscular solo. Plus, c’mon – anything with handclaps is a “call to action”, right? As for “Kaafi Funk”, it was that first track that gave birth to the whole project. I owe a lot to Rez Abbasi, who played electric sitar on that tune. There wasn’t a lot on there other than loops and a MIDI arrangement when he first heard it, and the form has even changed since he cut his part on that tune. When I sent him an MP3 of what was there, and a horribly written chart (all my charts are horribly written), I was certain that he would turn me down. You know, say he was too busy or something, but he was down with it, and his absolutely killer solo on that track gave it a push, and inspired others who played after. “Kaafi Funk” really became the “beacon” for the project on many levels.
What music first obsessed you during your adolescence? Can you think of an example of a music that truly had a deep impact on you at one time, yet an impact that has not been lasting (meaning, you really can’t find pleasure in listening to it these days)? Conversely, what artist or album has captured your attention quite by surprise in recent years, perhaps one that you had resisted or prematurely formed an opinion of? What is it about that music that is now clearly compelling to you?
I got into a lot of different stuff in a short period of time in my early teen years, but my first true love was jazz, which I got into at seventeen. I discovered The Grateful Dead very shortly after and felt there was a connection, and became obsessed there, too. Post-punk had a big impact on me in my early teens, bands like Bauhaus, Gang Of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc. Much of it no longer holds up in the same way. I mean the attitude, the posturing, much of the vocals, etc – I cannot get behind that now. On the other hand, now I hear things in the production, and some playing that I missed before. For example, the production of some of the Bauhaus and Siouxsie albums is quite amazing, and John McGeoch’s guitar playing on Juju blew me away when I sat down with that album six years ago for the first time since the mid-80’s! I also see very clearly how so much of that scene was influenced by psychedelic music from twenty years prior. The Cramps, however – another band I was really into at that time – keep getting bettter, and I really “get” them now. I think the fact that what they were doing was firmly rooted in a musical tradition might have something to do with that.
Black Sabbath – this is a band I had written off initially because of their fans in my universe! I actually remember reading an interview with Trent Reznor about fifteen years ago where he stated the same thing about Zeppelin. There was a clear line in the sand back in the days when I was listening to the post-punk stuff. We had dyed hair, partially shaved heads, a dark aesthetic, that kind of shite, and the “Rockers” hated us, and so I stupidly had written off their music. I wouldn’t say I’m now in love with Sabbath, but I now respect and admire it, particularly the raw and visceral aspect of their music. I also think of it differently, more in terms of its place in history, after reading Joe Carducci point out how he feels they are directly related to Vanilla Fudge via Earth.
What music have you been listening to lately? If push comes to shove, “The Inner Mounting Flame” or “Birds of Fire” and why? Please show your work.
I’ve been listening to lots of random santur music, both Persian and Indian. Working and hanging with Amir Amiri really got me into that instrument. I’ve also been really digging and studying the sounds and arrangements of the Holland–Dozier–Holland canon. But in terms of actual recent stuff, neo-psych groups like Quilt, and also White Fence have been “on my iPod”. I can relate to and appreciate the pains taken to get the sounds right on those two groups’ albums.
I passed this question on to the rest of the guys – – Michael Kaler is all over La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano, Mark Segger has been digging deep on composer György Kurtág recently, and Alexei wants you to check Supersilent’s 10 and Peter Tosh’s Mystic Man.
If push comes to shove, “The Inner Mounting Flame” or “Birds of Fire” and why? It would have to be a fierce shove, as that is a tough one … I would have to say The Inner Mounting Flame. Both are stellar, but the writing on the first album is just a little bit stronger. It could be a first album thing. There are amazing moments on both, for sure. Usually the albums being made by groups on the verge of imploding have something special going on, and Birds Of Fire has a bit of that energy, interesting sonics, and I love the cover art … but I still must stand by the “composition” card on this one.
Would you care to comment on the rumor (the rumor that we are attempting to start right now) that lightsweetcrude will soon fuse the glam-metal of the early 80s Los Angeles Sunset Strip into your musical stew, changing the name of the band to lightsweetMotleyCrude, and releasing a new single entitled, “(She’s Got) The Looks That Kali”?
Haha! No comment … but one band member does have a Spandex allergy.
Victorian-era art critic and essayist – and, it should be noted, HUGE Deep Purple fan – John Ruskin once wrote the following:
“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame.”
I need to clean my shower. And listen to more Deep Purple.
What’s next for lightsweetcrude?
The next album/EP is essentially written, so hopefully this Summer that will get started. The immediate priority, however, is a recording studio “Be In” that we’re holding at the beginning of July here in Toronto, where we’re going to film and record a few tracks live off the floor. Making videos of gigs has proven to be disappointing in terms of audiovisual quality, lighting, etc. For this taping, things are also being prepared so that there is a strong visual element in place with projections, liquids, and the like … I’m currently trying to source out a bubble machine! Projections are always present at every gig (venue permitting), but I’ll be bringing out an extra overhead projector or two for this one. We’re also hoping to stretch out more over the next year in terms of playing outside of Ontario, and eventually outside of Canada, as well.