Images: Damian Calvo
I came across musical duo 75 Dollar Bill through You Tube. It wasn’t a typical music video. Shot in 2013, guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown are busking in New York City’s Chinatown. Rocking out in nondescript sneakers, both are deeply involved in the music, with Chen playing though a small portable amp and Brown shaking maracas and kick-drumming a plywood crate that he’s sitting on. Around them, typical Chinatown activity goes on. Some guy crushes cardboard vegetable boxes. Another stands watching the pair intently while smoking a cigarette. A woman walks by then returns to drop a dollar into their hat. The video is both so normal and so curious: two ‘dad rock’ looking guys tearing up a bluesy and droney instrumental under the Manhattan Bridge in the middle of the day.
Chen, who works for a cancer diagnostics company, is also an accomplished violinist, and Brown, who is a clerical worker at a law school, has a long history playing in experimental New York rock acts. Together, they create thrillingly original instrumentals that seem influenced by the music of the southern United States, India and Africa.
On their second album Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock, recently released on LA label Thin Wrist, Chen and Brown are joined by guests, who add trumpet, saxophone, contrabass, and viola. These come to the fore on “I’m Not Trying to Wake Up”, the album’s 15-minute closing track that you can listen to below.
Read a brief chat we had with Che and Rick about their music.
Noisey: On the new album you’ve expand the sound. Has your set up and style changed much since your regular shows at Troost bar?
Che Chen: We started inviting friends to sit in with us at shows pretty early on, so inviting them into the studio was really just an extension of what we’d already been doing live. Our shows and residencies at Troost were (and remain) a great way to try out new ideas and configurations of the band. The lineup has always been somewhat flexible, expanding for certain material and contracting back to the percussion/guitar core for others. Most of the songs on the new record were written in the first year Rick and I started playing together, so it is some of our most “lived in” material. Some, like “Beni Said” had already been played by an expanded band a fair amount before we recorded it and was recorded live in the studio, whereas “I’m Not Trying to Wake Up” was a pattern we’d been working on that really took shape through the recording process with various guests doing overdubs. We’re excited to do more duo and bigger group stuff and always have ideas for both.
“I’m Not Trying to Wakeup” is an amazing song. How long have you been playing this?
Rick Brown: Thanks! This rhythm pattern (the crux of the song, I guess) is something we first worked on about six-months after Che and I started playing together. The song's had this title for about a year. The recording was done over many months, in between lots of other playing and recording, and was influenced by (and has influenced) the live versions we have done. The cover of the vinyl version of the record (which Che designed) is largely a visual representation of the various patterns we use in playing the long 18-beat cycle of the song.
Whose idea was it to busk in Chinatown?
Rick: Playing on the streets has been something Che and I were both interested in from early on. We each took some time looking around for a place where we thought sound would be decent and we'd have at least a tolerant audience, if not a rapt one. The day of that video, we decided to try this shady spot under the Manhattan Bridge. It worked out pretty great because we actually had a semi-captive audience, many queued up to buy fruits and vegetables from a vendor who set up after we'd begun and whose produce (or prices) must be the best in the area.
The Mauritanian influence, particularly the music of Wallahi Le Zein plays a part in your sound. Have you travelled through that part of the world?
Che: I went to Mauritania briefly in 2013 and got a crash course in the Moorish modal system from Jeich Ould Chigaly, who is featured on a couple of the cuts on the Wallahi Le Zein compilation. He and his wife, Noura Mint Seymali, are both astounding musicians and generous, kind people. Music is a family affair there so I got schooled by lots of different family members, including their five-year old son, Mohammed. Three years later I’m still unpacking things Jeich showed me in those two weeks. I’m far from any kind of expert in that music, but it’s definitely an influence. It was very eye opening in many ways and in other ways just kind of reinforced things that I was already doing. Most of the songs on this record predate my trip there though, so there isn’t much quarter-tone guitar on this one.
Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock is your first album recorded in a proper studio. Did you write the songs knowing that you would be recording in studio?
Rick: Our songs are much more organic in their origins than this question implies. They come from simple, tiny bits and grow “naturally” from them, so no. We generally let things happen slowly, so we did not at all plan the arrangements with recording style in mind. But we did obviously take full advantage of the possibilities of overdubbing. The recorded version has a lot going on and we can only approach that when we play with a six- or seven-piece band, as we have a few times recently. I should point out that while “Beni Said” and “Cummins Falls" were recorded, and “I'm Not Trying to Wake Up” was also mixed in a nice, professional studio, we have also recorded and mixed in our relatively crude practice studio set-up and that those songs sound pretty good, too.
You lead a parade to Other Music store's farewell show at the Bowery Ballroom. How important has that store been to 75 Dollar Bill?
Che: When I first moved to New York in 2001, Other Music was really kind of a lifeline to what was going on musically in the city. I was a frequent shopper and ended up working there. I learned a lot about music there, both from my co-workers, who all seemed to possess a kind of encyclopedic knowledge about whatever they were into, and from just being around all that music. Rick and one of the owners, Josh Madell, are old friends too, so between us there’s quite a bit of shared history with the store. Other Music released our first record, Wooden Bag, through their label, Other Music Recording Company, and have really been boosters of 75 Dollar Bill from the beginning. Being asked to be part of the farewell parade was bittersweet, but we were happy to help send them out in joyous, communal way. We had about 25 people in our second line, our biggest band yet!
'Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock' is available now on Thin Wrist.