Dave Rempis is a tireless internationally-touring artist, and has led or been a member of 20+ bands, with Chicago-based and other US musicians, and a select group of international comrades. Over the last seven years he has documented his work with nearly 30 releases on his own Aerophonic Records label. That’s an average of about four albums per year, people!
In addition to Dave, the trio, Kuzu, consists of two like-minded improvisors (not from Chicago), who impressed him so much, both individually and together, that he knew this trio had to happen. That says a lot.
MB: Where are you originally from, are you from Chicago originally?
Dave Rempis: I’m from just outside of Boston originally, actually.
MB: and what brought you to Chicago?
Dave Rempis: I came out here to go to Northwestern University in 1993, so yeah, I was in Boston ‘till the time I was 18 and then living in Chicago ever since.
MB: And your first entry onto the scene in Chicago; was it the Vandermark 5?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, I mean my first big entry. I was working in some other bands before that, like, when I was in college. And, you know, my first entry into the scene was kind-of like – I played in a – basically a jam band in college and we played at a local jazz club called The Bop Shop on–I think a monthly gig on Thursday nights–and started playing there. And, I mean I knew a lot of the people who were playing there already from having gone to see them. But that was kind-of my first real gig in the city on a regular basis, basically
MB: What was your playing like back in those days, has it changed much since then?
Dave Rempis: [Laughing] Man, that’s a good question. I’d probably have to go back and listen to some recordings to refresh my memory [Laughs]. Although I will say, you know, sometimes when you do that it is interesting what the similarities are in some ways. Your fingers are your fingers and they gravitate toward certain things, so I think some of those licks are still in there.
MB: You think your ears have changed somewhat over time?
Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, you know, my ears have definitely – my ears and my perspective and everything else has definitely changed significantly since that time. And, you know, I mean fuck it’s been what twenty – twenty-some years. I’ve done a lot more listening since then as well. So yeah, my ears are definitely different than what they were then.
MB: The band itself KUZU that you’re bringing to Madison: What is the origin of that band, who are Tashi and Tyler and where are they from?
Dave Rempis: Sure, so Tashi Dorji is a guitarist who is from Bhutan originally. And he moved to the United States to go to university in Asheville, like, I think around the late 90s or 2000. And he’s been in Asheville ever since, working kind-of in the noise scene a lot. I mean he does a lot of solo stuff, he’s been doing duos with like Mette Rasmussen and Thom Nguyen with their band Manas. And he’s like opening up for like, you know, huge bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and stuff like that. And we kind-of knew of each other for a while. And then I did a solo tour in 2017, where the whole point was to not just play a solo set everywhere I went, which was something I was working on, but also to work with, you know, local improvisers in all the different cities I went to. And so in Asheville it definitely made sense to do something with him just ‘cause, you know, we were kind-of like minded improvisers. So that was the first time we actually played together.
And then with Tyler, I met him about 5 years ago on a double bill in Lafayette, Indiana, at this great little dive bar called The Spot Tavern that’s been doing concerts for quite a while now. And I had never heard of him before and – I mean I loved his set. He was playing a duo with a bass player and we just kind-of hit it off personally right away. And he started coming up to Chicago to work with different people like Mars Williams and a few other folks in town. So we would occasionally do things. And then Tashi and Tyler have a duo that’s been working for, like, about four years now. And when I heard that band–I heard their records–and I saw them live in Chicago–and that duo just, like, totally blew my mind. So, you know, that kind-of all happened in 2017 and it was like “okay we all need to play together,” basically. So we scheduled something for the fall of 2018, which is when we made our first record and did our first concert, basically.
MB: Does the name itself have any significance?
Dave Rempis: Man, it’s kind-of funny. So kuzu means hello in Tashi’s native language, it’s basically a greeting. It turns out it also means lamb in Turkish which is great because I’m Greek and I love lamb! And there’s also a radio station, as it turns out, in Texas called KUZU that plays a lot of, like, progressive experimental stuff. So it kind-of fit on a bunch of different levels.
MB: Are you getting a lot of airplay down there?
Dave Rempis: It think we are, actually [Laughs].
MB: That’s awesome. So is this a completely improvised group or do you play any compositions?
Dave Rempis: It’s completely improvised. You know, I would say that any band that’s completely improvised – I mean at least for me – I have a lot of different groups that are completely improvised bands, and I feel like what distinguishes one from the next is what that particular band sort of gravitates towards or what – like, what its strengths are or what its sound is. So this band for me, like, it really has kind-of a sound, and that certainly evolves over time, but it feels very cohesive and, you know, compositional in that sense.
MB: It seems like – I do this too – there are a lot of groups these days who are, you know, not in that typical quartet construction; where you’ve kind-of removed an element that would normally be found. Do you think this is, like, an intentional disruption or just – does it happen for another reason?
Dave Rempis: You mean just in terms of the lineup or the instrumentation?
MB: Yeah, like you guys don’t have a bass player, you know, that kind-of thing.
Dave Rempis: Right, I feel like the biggest thing to me in the music, as far as putting bands together, is really just the personalities of the people involved. I almost feel like the instrument choices are, like, secondary. I mean, I think you can make really beautiful music with any combination of instruments. And what kind-of – what kind-of stands out more to me is really the interaction between the people involved, if that makes sense. So, it so happens that, you know, this lineup is a little bit off from, say, what a typical jazz lineup would be. But I do think it is more based on the personalities than necessarily the instrumentation, if that makes sense.
That said, not having a bass player certainly like – it definitely changes things and in a very interesting way. I mean, there’s – there’s a certain amount of grounding that’s missing in that low end area. But then Tashi like – his guitar sound – like, he does a lot of stuff that is very kind-of low-end-y. He can really create, like, this sort of low end rumble. Or he can be very soloistic, or, you know, like he – he really has this wide range of things that he’s able to do that can play the role of several different instruments whether that be, say, guitar or piano or something in a jazz-setting that might be more cordial. Or, you know, bass. Something that’s, like, just outlining things more or holding down things rhythmically in a different kind of way.
MB: I think even from the drums, having the low bass drum sound can even root things in a way, do you feel that too?
Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think Tyler’s somebody who’s very conscious of his – you know, his tuning and his sound – and, like, the frequency ranges and how that’s all contributing to, you know – to fill out the sound of the ensemble.
MB: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to playing the saxophone, maybe? Can you share anything that you’re working on from a technical perspective, or interpretive, or artistic perspective?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, sure. I don’t know, it’s such a – it’s such a common instrument there’re so many different ways to play it for one thing. And there’s so many – there’s so many just insane masters of the instrument–living and not living. in some ways it’s, like, a daunting thing where I feel like you just have to, like, almost push all that outside of your head, to be able to actually be focusing in on what you’re doing, you know. For me – I mean, I feel like, you know, the big touchstones are things that aren’t that unpredictable all the – all the great saxophone players from Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, and Sidney Bechet, up through Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. And, you know, I mean there’s – I feel like all that incredible span of people all contributed different parts to the overall language of the instrument. Outside of that, I mean I’ve always been really interested in – like, I grew up in a Greek family and grew up around Greek music and, I mean, that’s really what kind-of inspired me in the first place to pick up a woodwind instrument—was sort of being around that music as a kid and being really inspired by it. And so, you know, the tonalities, timbres, and modes of, you know, Greece and Turkey in the Middle East have always had a pretty big impact on me. I also studied anthropology and ethnomusicology in college. I was really lucky to be able to go to Africa to Ghana for a year to study there. And so I feel like a lot of those different things of various folk music traditions from around the world, but particularly Greece in the Middle East, and in West Africa, really helped inspire some of the things that I do on the instrument, basically.
MB: You have your own record label Aerophonic records, and it seems to have a really impressive design consistency among the various releases.
Dave Rempis: Yeah, thanks.
MB: Obviously that’s a conscious thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and also, like, do you have distribution, you know, and is there a model that you sort of followed in developing your own label?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, Yeah. So the reason I did it in the first place was basically because – I was working with various labels at the time and they’re all great and everyone who runs them are, like, truly fantastic people who are totally dedicated to the music. And, you know, some of them gave me the opportunity to put out my first record, and they’re fantastic. But in terms of what I was working on, there was just way more stuff that I wanted to get out there than I could really find labels to do, you know. I mean, if I was working with other people’s labels I could probably put out a couple records a year. With Aerophonic, since that started in 2013, I’m now on my twenty-fifth record, 26 and 27 will be out in the spring. So, basically, within seven years I’ve been able to average about four records a year. So, you know, I’m able to get just more stuff out there, basically, which is really great. So that was kind-of, I’d say, the first impetus for starting a label.
At this point, I mean, it’s still artist-run. It’s just me; I don’t have any staff or anything. And I’m working on, you know, the manufacturing, the mastering, the mixing. I don’t do the graphic design. I’m very lucky to have a friend who’s a professional graphic designer who has been with the label since the beginning [Jonathan Crawford]. We really workshopped, or discussed the idea of what the look of the label would be. I mean, I’ve always liked recognizable labels–whether it be, like, Black Saint or Hat Art or whatever it might be–that, like, when you see that record you know it’s from that label, which is great. Now, that said, I don’t always like the templates they use necessarily. And so part of our discussion was the idea of coming up with something that was, like, a bit more flexible in terms color, in terms of palette, in terms of the look of it. [But] that they would still be, like, recognizable that it was from this label, basically.
So that was kind-of the inspiration behind the design concept. And I’m really lucky that I’m still working with the same graphic designer since the beginning. And that he – you know, we’re both on the same page. We work together really efficiently. So that’s all really great, and in terms of getting stuff out there; yeah, I mean, it’s really just me, and it’s really just – the distribution I have is basically mailing stuff to people who order directly online. I sell to about eight or nine retailers around the world. There’s, you know, like, about, at this point, three in the states, three or four in Europe, one in Japan, and one in Australia. So, you know, pretty much everything is direct. There’s – unfortunately not that many brick-and-mortar stores out there anymore. And many of them that are out there are selling, like, you know, used stuff as opposed to new stuff. So, you know, it’s basically me hitting all those folks up, making sure they know about the new releases, mailing everything from home, and then carrying stuff around in my suitcase on tour, basically. I mean – and I feel like that’s one of the things that actually kind-of keeps the label running, as opposed to lot of other labels that have folded, is that, you know, because I’m one of the artists on the label, like, you know, sales that I do myself, or on tour, like, help continue the label. Whereas for other labels, who are just giving product to, you know, artists as–essentially–their payment, they’re not getting any of the proceeds from that. So it makes it really kind-of difficult to just sustain a label when that’s the case. Because, I mean, I can say for me, myself, like, a third to half of my sales are basically at concerts, you know.
MB: Would you be selling the same kind of volume on a different label as you would running your own label?
Dave Rempis: I don’t think so, no. I mean, I feel like it depends on the label. I mean, there are a few labels out there now there are really putting some effort into, you know, promoting stuff and – and getting stuff out there, and working with their artists to get, you know, concerts and higher profile playing opportunities. But I’d say the majority of labels in this, you know, music are generally smaller run labels that are basically doing the manufacturing and putting it up for sale. But they’re generally not doing that much promotional work. So, you know, I feel like having that kind of control over all of that just makes sense for me as an artist that’s already communicating with my fans. It just kind-of makes it like a one-stop-shop to find out anything about, like, what I’m doing, where I’m playing, what my recordings are. So all of that kind-of gets out there to the people who actually care about it.
And, really, one of the most rewarding things about the label has been the fact that I actually communicate directly with people who’ve been buying my music for years who I didn’t know before, you know. I mean, a guy, you know, in Germany who’s bought every recording of mine since 2000, or whatever, you know, now is buying everything directly from me. We chat. I see him at concerts when I’m over there, you know. You really build up a really nice rapport with people, which is great. I mean, it just feels like a much more personal connection, which is – you know, it’s really how this music runs. I mean, you know, we’re talking about sales in the hundreds, not like records that are selling 20,000 copies and so – you know, it’s kind-of a boutique world of stuff. And I feel like cultivating those types of personal relationships with folks is really important.
MB: Last time we spoke which, I was trying to remember – and I’m ashamed to say that it could have been as long as 10 years ago.
Dave Rempis: Oh wow, okay, yeah, yeah.
MB: You were here with Frank Rosaly doing a duo show.
Dave Rempis: Oh that’s right! yeah, totally.
MB: We may have spoken in the interim, But I just can’t remember [Laughing].
Dave Rempis: Right. I was actually trying to remember too. ‘Cause I mean I remember chatting with you but I couldn’t remember when the last time it was.
MB: Anyway, in one of our conversations you mentioned that you were supplementing as a bartender when you’re not on the road. Is that still the case?
Dave Rempis: No, I kind-of went from that – I mean I worked as a bartender for a large concert promoter in Chicago called Jam Productions that owned several concert venues, like, large concert venues, you know like 1000 to 3000 people sized venues. And I went from there to working for Pitchfork Music Festival. The first year I did that I ran their concessions operation, and from there I went on to, basically, be business manager of the festival for 12 years. And I left that in 2016, and then started working for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival here in Chicago as operations manager, which is a smaller gig than the Pitchfork gig, you know–much more part-time basically–but, kind-of way more aligned with what I’m interested in personally. And, you know, I’ve also been working with Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. And, I mean, that’s strictly a volunteer thing, but, like, curating a jazz series – a weekly series since 2002 over there, and working as board president for, like, the last five years. So, you know, those are the kind of things that fill up my time when I’m not focused on, you know, my own playing–music stuff.
MB: Dave it’s great to talk to you, thanks so much for taking the time
Dave Rempis: Yeah absolutely, thank you. I’m excited to be in Madison, I mean, Cafe Coda is run by a couple of friends who – who I’ve known through their involvement with the Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. So I was really excited to see that, you know, BlueStem Jazz has turned into a not-for-profit now. I’m really excited about playing at Cafe Coda. I mean just the momentum that seems to be happening in Madison, in terms of this music right now, is so great. ‘cause it’s – you know it’s not a far drive from Chicago, and there was a long period of time where there wasn’t really a place to – for me to play there. And now I feel like, man, it just seems to have exploded in the last 3-4 years to the point where there’s so many great things happening there and I’m very excited to be a part of it.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.