Chatting With Mandible Chatter

An AmbiEntrance Exclusive Interview

Mandible Chatter:
"Food for the Moon" Interview

(AmbiEntrance© - 1998)

Still recuperating after recently releasing Food for the Moon, Neville Harson and Grant Miller (collectively known as Mandible Chatter) were kind enough to submit themselves to this barrage of questions. It was a great time and we thank them for their most enjoyable participation.

Link: Can you tell us who you are, a bit about yourselves, and what you've been up to with Mandible Chatter.

Neville: I grew up in Pennsylvania, around Allentown, (no Billy Joel references please!) In 1991 I moved out to California. A girl I fell in love with (and later wrote "Sad Tree Song" about) was going to Stanford and she gave me a road atlas as her parting gift. I figured there'd be people in San Francisco who wanted to make strange sounds. I met Grant through an ad in the paper and we started getting together weekly and playing guitar.

We started out doing really pretty things, and as my relationship fell apart, the music got a bit noisier, until we had completely done away with the guitars and were now building musical sculptures out of scrap metal in my garage in East Palo Alto. We went through a heavy ambient industrial phase where we were listening to a lot of Zoviet France and the Hafler Trio, etc. Gradually we reintroduced guitars, and added piano and cello to our musical paintbox. Which brings us pretty much to the present.

Grant: Mandible Chatter formed about 6 years ago when Neville answered a want-ad I had in a local newspaper. I'd mentioned the Residents in the ad (more as a spiritual influence than being anyone I wanted to deliberately imitate), and when Neville said he moved to the Bay Area to be closer to them, I knew I liked him. From there we met up and began what was, at first, a guitar ambient project (and I mean guitars-only). Mostly very pretty, though sometimes haunting material. After about a year though, we grew tired of that and began playing with other sound sources, until little-by-little we'd tossed in everything including kitchen sinks and whatever else was laying around the garage. That's about the time we did our first cd, Drinking Out the Hourglass.

Since that time and over the course of 3 additional releases we've added sounds and techniques to our arsenal, become more studio savvy, and grown up, basically. Currently, we're relaxing after the burn of having recorded Food For the Moon which was A LOT of work; waiting to see how folks will react to it and thinking about ideas for upcoming work.

Link: So who's the brains of the outfit... and what does that make the other? Or more to the point, who does what?

Neville: We're both the brains of the outfit. Or each of us has half a brain, might be a better way of putting it. Grant is more of the patient craftsman in the studio, where I am the suddenly inspired type. I get really manic about the work at times, and Grant helps channel that energy into something productive. I don't think I would have been able to make an album without him. He's the one that brings the classical guitar sounds to the studio. Me, I'm just making noise.

Grant: Neville and I have always had a completely democratic approach to the way we record and ultimately release our material. Collectively, we pull it all together and provide results that I'd like to think are greater than the sum of the parts.

Link: Both "Grace" and "Food for the Moon" feature an incredible range of variety. To what do you attribute this unusual disparity?

Neville: The diversity of our material comes down to the fact that I get bored when I have to do the same thing over and over. I'm not really into listening to records that don't go anywhere in their 40 or 60 minutes and I don't want to make records like that either. Plus, I'm interested in so many different types of music that bits of it finds its way to Mandible Chatter sessions and albums. This past year I've been listening to a lot of the new music coming out of Sweden--Hedningarna, Hoven Droven, Garmana, etc. but also the Anthology of American Folk Music that was reissued on Folkways last summer. I still love Indian and Middle Eastern music and am a big fan of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, the Grateful Dead, the Chemical Brothers, Loop Guru, and the Clash, etc. etc. etc.

Grant: The wide variety of material on our discs comes straight from the wide variety of our listening tastes. Neville and I were both raised on British Pop initially (The Beatles, the Kinks, and the like) before moving along to more mind-expanding (if you'll excuse the term) groups like Pink Floyd, Can, The Dead, etc... We've both done college radio, and for me that opportunity brought exposure to a lot of "out there" stuff from electronic music, to 20th Cen classical, to music from India, etc. - stuff that really blew my head open. I think Neville and I have always wanted, in a way, to be these bands that we love, and so we bring this to the recording process now, with a vocabulary that's unique to ourselves.

Link: What might a psychoanalyst say after hearing "Grace" or "Food..."?

Neville: I don't know that Freud would find too much to dwell on in our music. There's not a whole lot about hidden sex drives, although there is quite a bit of death imagery in the titles. There are also no overt references to parental figures although "Night of Falling Trees" includes the sounds of three babies crying. I may be oversimplifying this but I think Freud saw all Art as a sublimation of the sexual drive, which I disagree with. I think that humans also have a "spiritual drive" and I think a lot of creative processes lean towards this, if not embrace it totally.

Jung, on the other hand, would probably have a lot to say about our music. One of the recurring themes in our music is the exploration and acceptance of the shadow; the integration of the shadow with the self; and the merging of the darkness and the light into a complete whole. Sounds pretty lofty until you realize that even Alannis Morissette did this successfully in "Hand in my Pocket," you know, I'm this, but I'm also this opposite thing as well, and I'm okay with both.

Link: Most CDs are neatly packaged with one "type" of sound or another; Have you worried that people wouldn't know how to take your un-classifiable overall sound?

Neville: Yes, I worried about this a lot with "Food." And there was stuff that we left off the record that would have made it even more diverse, like this little folk ditty about a town where the sidewalks are made out of trampolenes. It just got to be too much, and we had to ask ourselves if we were just doing this to get people to see how clever we were, or if the diversity of the material somehow added up to a coherent whole. I didn't have much faith in the unity of the record until I heard the whole thing from start to finish and decided that it worked for me, at least.

Grant: Worried? Honestly, never until this most recent one. I said this before in the Manifold interview, and I'll say it again that I think we really stepped out on far limbs for the new CD. And yes, I've feared and anticipated that there will be those who knock us down for it. But so far, I've been pleasantly surprised by the very positive response the CD's gotten, so we'll see...

Link: Does Mandible Chatter perform live, and do your shows reflect the genre-jumping array of your CDs?

Grant: No, our live performances aren't anything like our recent discs which really make use of those luxuries a studio affords. I mean, we still strive for diversity in a live setting - moving from one textural "movement" to another, perhaps ending with an ambient guitar duet (or even a song!) - but there's no way to recreate the lushness of the recent discs. With that said, I think there's something good to be said about the more stripped down sounding Mandible Chatter and that approach to performance in general. I was listening recently to our first CD (not having heard it in a long time) and I was struck in a positive and surprising way by its minimalism and low-fi qualities. Oddly (to me, anyway) there are people out there who seriously consider our first 2 CDs to be our best and have little use for the newer ones.

Neville: We used to do live shows in and around San Francisco, but as our discs became more layered and complex, it just seemed kind of pointless to play live. Most places seem to be set up for loud bands, frequent trips to the bar, and audiences that come to socialize--all of which has its place, but it wasn't the right kind of scene for us. Which is not to say that every show was a disaster. We did a number of shows with local Butoh dance group Collapsing Silence, which seemed to work out well. It helps to give an audience something to look at; after all, two guys twiddling knobs just isn't that exciting to watch, no matter how compelling the music may be. And only occasionally did we match the "genre-jumping" that we're known for on disc. Most of the shows were 30 to 60 minutes long and were journeys through drones of all shapes and sizes, although at one of our last shows we did a cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide."

Link: How did your live radio/'Net shows on KFJC go?

Grant: The Live-to-air gig went really well (thanks for asking). It was our first performance in nearly a year and a half (believe it or not), so we were a little nervous about it beforehand, but once we got rolling it was like the last gig was yesterday. Robert Rich lives in the area, so he came by and offered some much appreciated moral support. And, yeah, we were really happy with it. I'm still buzzing on it today.

Neville: See, nobody told me that this thing was being broadcast over the Internet. I only learned about that after it happened. It's probably better that I didn't know or I might have froze up, especially during the interview. But if I had known, maybe I wouldn't have been quite so flip! I felt really good about the first set, but was bored with the second set. I don't think we pulled off the guitar stuff very well. But I had fun anyway.

Link: One of your contributing musicians, Jonathan Wright, contacted me after reading my review of "Grace". He tells me you guys use NO synthesizers to achieve your amazing sounds! Please clarify.

Grant: Yeah, Jonathon's right about that. I mean, we've used really cheap Casio keyboards (SK1) here and there, but very seldom, and NEVER in the places where reviewers say "a synthesizer played..." It's funny, actually, Neville and I are always tremendously amused by what certain reviewers will guess is creating certain sounds. (By that token perhaps we should also declaim "NO SAXOPHONES OR PIGEONS USED"!!) It's usually way simpler than what they're guessing.

Neville: Jonathan Wright is right! We don't even own any synthesizers or computers. This is not some kind of weird pride thing; it's just that we can't afford the stuff. Most of our sounds are derived from common household objects and a few effects pedals. We don't even have any rack mounted stuff. I personally don't like tapping buttons to change sounds incrementally. I need the sweeping feel of turning a dial to get those "WHHHHOOOOMMM" sounds that I hear in my head. During the Golden Age of Mandible Chatter, we had a garage full of scrap metal, the freedom to make music at all hours, and big imaginations.

Link: After reading my reviews of your work, can you correct any of the mistaken and/or amusing assumptions I've made?

Neville: First let me just say that I like your reviews. I think they are well-written and point out some intriguing details that even escape us. The only overall correction I would make is that your review of Grace contains many references to synthesizers, which we haven't used--at least in the form of large keyboards or computers that store and shape sounds. A lot of what you're hearing as synths are actually vocals or some sort of feedback. In "Radiance," that's actually a guitar being bowed with a metal rod, although I suppose it does sound like "synthetic bell tones." (I think I just don't like the word "synthetic" as it has a connotation of being "plastic" or "phony." I like when people refer to our sound as "organic," but then, I've always been a child of the '60's.)

In that same piece, "Vibration" is actually me singing the chorus from the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" over a loop from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

As for the "distressed metal or a distressed chimpanzee" at the beginning of "Nevermind the Credits"--well, I won't tell you what it is, but it's closer to a chimpanzee.

Link: Some of your tracks are twisted, surreal journeys... like "Beyond the Valley of the Blue Rosebuds" or "Blessings from the Kingdom of Silence". How do you go about creating this type of work?

Grant: The sound collage pieces both began in a very conceptual way which is wholly unlike how we usually operate where usually a piece is borne out of improvisation. With Beyond the Valley, I had this idea of creating some sort of journey for the listener based on loops and samples from Residents songs. It was an homage from the very beginning. So, I sat down and built up a library of these loops over the course of a few months. I took the best ones, along with a couple moments of improvised manipulation, and assembled the piece. When I debuted it for Neville, he made a couple compositional suggestions (I think he changed the beginning and it was done. Back in the 70's the Residents had done a similar track dedicated to the Beatles entitled "Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life," hence our title.

Neville: The first part of "Blessings" was Grant working in a similar fashion, although this time the sound sources were all moments from various Mandible Chatter sessions. The idea was to make a sound collage that moved a little quicker than "Rosebuds," always keeping the Beatles "Revolution 9" in the back of our minds as something to strive towards. I took over in parts 2 and 3 and made it a kind of autobiographical collage of places I had been and people I had known. Some of the sounds in those sections included the chickens in East Palo Alto, John Cage reading at Stanford, a group of us chanting in an abandoned train station in Pennsylvania, and the sinister cackle of an ex-girlfriend's parrot.

Link: Am I correct in believing that "Blessings from the Kingom of Silence" is named for what happens AFTER the track ENDS?!

Neville: You may believe what you want to believe! That is one of the beauties--and the dangers--of creating this kind of art. It's vague. It doesn't come right out and tell you what it is. Which doesn't necessarily mean that we know, and we're hiding it from you. In all honesty, we didn't conspire to name the piece after it's ending, but your interpretation is a good one, and it helps ME understand what the piece is about! Sometimes it takes years after I do something before I understand what it means.

Link: While I'm on track titles... "The Dust Blows Forward" makes me think that there's some backward effects on this cut... am I trying too hard to read something in to this?

Grant: There are no backwards sounds on "Dust" that I can think of. One reviewer (it could have been you) described this piece as sounding as though "a ton of effects" must've been used and that's not the case at all. I hate to ruin mysteries, but I'll tell you, that piece is actually the simplest thing on the record. It's just wind (from a couple of sources, blended), a choice loop/sample (its source being a guarded secret, at least for now), vocals (minimal effects), and a tea kettle. That's all. And actually, I don't know why this is, but it's perhaps my favorite cut on the entire disc.

Neville: The title actually comes from a Captain Beefheart song on the "Trout Mask Replica" album--"The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back." We chose that title with the intent of doing a sequel at some point, called, of course, "The Dust Blows Back."

Again, you are allowed to read whatever you want into things. That can be a beneficial way to explore your own mind and your own desires. The problems only come when you insist your way of seeing things is the only way they can be seen.

Link: I've always wanted to ask about the "secret" track at the end of "Grace"... how did the radio dial piece come about?

Neville: I think we came up with the radio dial idea as a framework for incorporating these little bits that were special to us at the time. We added the Mahler loop, the Chuck Berry loop (an allusion to our previous album) and the Tori Amos loop ("chatter, chatter, chatter") which is from a piece that we sometimes do live but can't put on a record for fear of copyright infringement. The Star Trek bit was donated by a friend, and answers the question that opens the album.

Grant: We thought that if we recorded some radio station surfing that it would be cool to stick in a couple of our own sounds to make it more interesting. So, yeah, most of it was taken from the radio as you hear it (courtesy of Neville), and we substituted a couple of our own bits. I think we blended it all pretty seamlessly (if I may say so myself)

Link: Grant, what's the best thing about working with Neville? What's the worst?

Grant: I think the best thing about working with Neville (and I really had to think about this because there are many) is that he gets me to think differently... about music of course, but also about other things as well, and I think to be able to do that is a real gift. Also, he's a surprisingly easy person to get along with (for an artistic type); very non-threatening and non-competitive, which I really appreciate, especially after having worked with some real "personalities."

The worst thing about working with Neville is that it's been 6 years and he still won't clean up my room for me!

Link: Neville, what's the best thing about working with Grant? And the worst?

Neville: The best thing about working with Grant is...the sense of balance he gives me creatively. The way he takes my sometimes over-the-top energy and channels it into something a little But the best thing is also the worst thing. Sometimes I feel confined by our perfectionistic approach. At some point I'm going to have to make a record of screeching feedback--multilayered and mutilated--frenzied tribal drumming, screaming and angry vocals, and then bury it all in tons of reverb and other obnoxious effects. And the album would be all first-take stuff and would be recorded in three days. And would be largely unlistenable.

Link: Neville, what would you be doing if it weren't music? And what do you think Grant would be doing?

Neville: If I wasn't doing music I'd be writing about music. Or does that still count as "doing" music? If I didn't have music I'd probably just travel aimlessly around the world, visiting sacred places, sleeping on beaches, and writing pretentious poetry and condescending little observations about myself and my fellow humans in a little black notebook I'd keep in my backpack.

It's hard to imagine Grant without music. I think he might be happy working in Film or Television, or maybe getting a job at a paper airplane factory.

Link: Grant, what would you be doing if it weren't music? And what do you think Neville would be doing?

Grant: A life not pursuing music...That's a very difficult concept to imagine, really. I've dreamed of being a successful musician since I was 8 years old. I'm still dreaming.

If Neville weren't involved in music, I imagine he'd most likely be a monk, or a spiritual bard of some sort If not that, then perhaps a writer - he's actually a very good one; it's that eye-for-detail thing...

Link: If Mandible Chatter were asked to compose a piece for the 1998 Winter Olympics, describe what it might sound like?

Grant: I think the opening flute figure to Sad Tree Song would make an excellent theme for the Olympics. It has a sort of Aaron Copeland quality to it.

Neville: My first reaction to this question was that I would be against it in principle. I despise competition, especially between nations, and I wouldn't want to support that outdated, competitive way of thinking. I mean, come on people, when are we going to wake up?

And then I thought about the money. And how I want to be a composer when I grow up. And the boost it would give my career. (God it's tough to grow up and see yourself compromise your ideals.)

And so I would give them what they want, a simple, dramatic piece with lots of brass. I'd make it rhythmic and exciting. But I would temper it with what I want, which would be to find a way to weave themes from various folk songs from around the world into it. Somehow I'd like to think the music would represent a multicultural unity, even if the games do not.

Link: Any plans or predictions for your future excursions?

Neville: Future plans are so up in the air--I don't even know where I'll be living by the end of the year. There's the possibility of doing some shows in Portland and Seattle. We've got an album of "rarities" and other miscellaneous stuff to put out at some point, which will probably be our most diverse disc yet. But as for where we're going, it's hard to say. We vacillate between wanting to compose traditional pieces of classical music mixed with ambient-industrial textures, to doing an album of pop songs. And then sometimes I think that we should stay with the ambient-industrial stuff and just get really good at it, and known for it. I really want to start contributing music to and composing for film and video, as well as dance and theatre companies.

Grant: The only future excursion that comes to mind is to release the "definitive" Mandible Chatter disc. It hasn't been done yet, but with each release we get closer. Now that we've done a couple eclectic CDs I'd like to focus on exploring a few areas in more depth on separate releases.

For further information, visit the Manifold Records website!
And thanks to Vince Harrigan for his assistance.

This interview posted March 7, 1998

a-h i-q r-z