You're going to be hearing a lot about The Drain this year. That's because Psalm Zero's debut is a damn good record--filled with memorable, harsh yet luminous goth-gone-industrial. It's probably the most accessible statement yet from either of Psalm Zero's two members, Charlie Looker and Andrew Hock, both of whom have made their names playing dark, wildly imaginative avant-rock--with Extra Life and Castevet, respectively, as well as a bunch of other projects. "Probably if I had a good singing voice, I would've done something like [Psalm Zero] a long time ago," Hock told me during a recent pizza-fueled chat. "I've always wanted to make music that was more like Shudder to Think or Katatonia--just good songwriting. Still weird, but very much rock music."
Since I am so convinced that The Drain will get the attention it deserves, I feel less guilty about stating up front that what follows isn't a Psalm Zero interview. Instead, I've decided to use The Drain's March 4th release as an occasion to interview Hock for Heavy Metal Be-Bop, a series of jazz-and-metal themed Q&As that I launched in 2011 at Invisible Oranges (and continued there under the guidance of current Noisey editor Fred Pessaro). Anyone who's heard Castevet's two excellent LPs knows that Hock is a true metal trailblazer, but his longstanding interest in avant-garde jazz—and the fact that he studied improvisation at New England Conservatory—isn't as well documented. Andrew and I met in February to talk about how these two currents have intersected throughout his musical life. His very first answer, reproduced here, spoke volumes about the challenges of attempting to bridge the worlds of jazz and metal. Listen along via the streams below: an exclusive excerpt from a Hock duo performance with pianist Leo Svirsky that took place on January 10, and a Spotify playlist featuring artists cited by Andrew and tracks selected by me. To read a jumbo-size version of this Q&A, visit heavymetalbebop.com.
So I know a bit about your metal background, but I don't have a clue what led you to study improvisation at the New England Conservatory. Can you tell me about your history with jazz and improv?
When I first picked up the guitar, age 8 through 13, I was a shredder. I was always into "How far can I take this thing I'm doing that I really love?" And I listened to metal, so it was learning Marty Friedman solos and stuff like that.
But then I was at the National Guitar Workshop, watching people play jazz. They were doing things harmonically that I couldn't really understand. I couldn't really fathom playing over chord changes, and I figured that the next step to advancing my guitar playing was to learn jazz. But really, the jazz I listened to was always guitar players like Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey. I got to improvisational music through early John McLaughlin records, so I checked out Cecil Taylor through checking out Tony Oxley. Just like with metal, where I always gravitated toward the more extreme, far-out things, that happened with jazz too, but I didn't really know how to go about learning to play that music.
So I took jazz classes at the Guitar Workshop, and I saw Ben Greenberg and Tony Gedrich play, and they played jazz like punk rock—really abrasively—and that was really awesome to see: coming at jazz from a place of hardcore punk. But then I got this really square jazz teacher in late middle school, and I had him through most of high school. He was super straight-ahead—the whole concept of "You have to learn how to play in before you play out." And I also went to a performing-arts high school, where the leader of the jazz program was this saxophonist Bill Easley, who was in George Benson's band—the most straight-ahead bebop and funk saxophonist. I think he was in Isaac Hayes's band also.
So I had these guys around me being like, "Oh, that out stuff—you gotta learn how to play in." But I always felt uncomfortable playing standard jazz because, first of all, there's not many jazz guitar players I really like, and also, it's just not how I wanted to express myself. Learning how to play over changes was invaluable for my ear, but I wouldn't call myself a good jazz guitar player.
But then, my senior year of high school before going to college, I took a lesson with Ben Monder, because I was really into him at the time. And I went to his house, and he had Morbid Angel and Voivod CDs. And I was like, "What, really? Wait…" Realizing that there is a meeting point somewhere. And he was kind of like, "Yeah, you can play whatever you want." That lesson was the first time I had this idea in my head: "Okay, I want to find a way to have a voice in improvised music, but I can take what I do in other avenues and incorporate it."
Then I was auditioning for jazz schools, and I had a few discouraging things. I had one audition for a college with a jazz guitarist who will remain unnamed, and he said, "You have a really interesting sound—what else do you do besides play jazz?" And I said, "I play in a death metal band." And he's just like, "I don't think you're right for this school." And that was it; it was super discouraging.
Around that time, I had been checking out Zs and stuff like that in New York, and then I saw Mary Halvorson play. And that really wowed me, because it was such a unique language: her articulation, her sense of dynamics, her sense of harmony. Within five seconds you could hear it was her. So I just went up to her—I think I was 18—and I said, "I'd like to take a lesson with you." I was in between semesters in college; I was at Berklee at the time and pretty miserable there. I didn't want to go to a straight-ahead jazz school, but I didn't know there was something else out there. She said, "You should study with this guy Joe Morris, who I studied with. He teaches at New England Conservatory, and there's this program there called Contemporary Improvisation."
So I started studying with Joe Morris. The first time I walked in there, he was playing bass, and he started playing a super-fast walking bass line, like Ornette [Coleman]–style, just free-tonality, and I had no idea what the hell to do, because the chord changes were gone. And it was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. I thought I would walk in and be like, "I've heard this guy play; I can do this." But once those rote structures were removed, and he said, "Just play," it was the hardest thing I've ever done. And I left there crying, thinking, "This is fucked. I've been trained this certain way, and it's completely counterintuitive to what I want to do with improvised music." But then I just kept at it with Joe Morris—practicing, shedding super hard on Ornette. And I took on a project of transcribing Eric Dolphy solos and playing them with tons of distortion and stuff like that. Eric Dolphy's wide intervallic thing really appealed to me, because to me, it was like the jazz version of Demilich.
Things started really to click, because Joe Morris said, "You like death metal? That's awesome. Find a way to incorporate that." And then seeing Mick Barr starting to improvise; he had just started to improvise, and I think I saw a video of him playing with John Zorn and Milford Graves. And I was like, "Wait, OK, you can play metal-sounding stuff in improvised contexts," which was kind of always my goal. So I just kept developing it and figuring out very concrete strategies of how to synthesize my influences in a way that would lead to having an improvisational voice I felt like I could call my own.
It took a few years and a lot of studying of particular people: doing a semester where I'm just really studying Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, and playing like them—knowing that I don't necessarily want to sound like Derek Bailey but that there's something from that music that I wanted to take. Or something from what Keith Rowe does, or Joe Morris or Mick Barr—my favorite guitar players. Jimmy Lyons was a big one for me; Jimmy Lyons was huge. He was actually Joe Morris's biggest influence, which I found out later on. But his playing on Unit Structures and the Cecil Taylor Unit record, and this solo record of his, Other Afternoons; it's completely phenomenal and I was super into his phrasing. I was really into Lee Konitz, so I did a lot of transcribing of his stuff and later Coltrane. And then a lot of modern-classical scores—reading scores and playing, you know, a Webern flute part on guitar. And that combined with pretty intensive ear training through the school—after a few years of that, it started to click.
What appealed to me about non-idiomatic improvisation, in the true sense of the word, was that the goal was to be free of genre or subgenre and deal purely with language at its most personal level. And the idea of sitting down with another musician with this completely other set of influences, and making music together. The process was always so fascinating to me—it was a sociological thing and an artistic thing. So I guess that's kind of how I ended up where I am now with improvisation.