SCV Interview With Multi-Instrumentalist Brian Ellis of Astra about his latest full length “Quipu” and much more
Brian Ellis is a multi-instrumentalist based out of San Diego, CA who is really making a name for himself in the group Astra along with his personal works with those in his area. His guitar and keyboard tones are as authentic as it gets, it’s music that really awakens the spirit and purpose of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Brian Ellis is now releasing a full length album “Quipu” through Parallax Sounds scheduled for release on April 11, 2011. The album is a little over an hour and blends progressive rock and fusion in a way that stretches the limits of the genres possibilities. Anyone who judges the album “Quipu” for not sounding like a certain record is missing the point of why the platform and foundation of fusion and progressive rock is so endless.
Life breathes all over the latest LP from Brian Ellis, “Quipu”. Bass tones shock your speakers, bursting flare after flare of tones that only certain type of gear can get. Inspiring on many levels, you feel the depth of appreciation when you read the notes for the album and realize Brian Ellis recorded all the sounds on “Quipu” with the exception of drum work from David Hurley in 3 songs. Sitar, guitars, bass, drums, wind instruments, percussion, there are many elements and fields of responsiblity dedicated to placing yourself in this type of role and Brian Ellis doesn’t leave a single part to waste. Each track is full of some of the most hypnotic and trance inducing rhythms and tones from any new age artist I have heard.
“Quipu” isn’t music that will sound exactly like Bitches Brew or any of your favorite records from that period. “Quipu” is more so a continuation of what that world meant and the importance of keeping that tradition and spirit alive. The heart, discipline and of course the gear it took to achieve that type of sound Miles Davis and the others made so famous is truly a gift to this world. Below is the interview we conducted with Brian Ellis about “Quipu” along with a few other subjects, we hope you enjoy the photos and audio clips we have provided to accompany the interview. I was fortunate enough to experience Brian Ellis live in the music and art venue I co-founded and operated The Pharaohs Den and he really took it to another level everytime I saw him perform. Don’t miss seeing him live if he plays in your area under his many monikers.
~ Erik Otis
“Psaw” by Brian Ellis ft David Hurley on “Quipu” (2011) from Parallax Sounds
Hi Brian, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to complete this interview with us. We have been diving deep into your new record with Parallax Recordings, “Quipu” and are really eager to find out a lot about this record along with other areas of your past, present and future.
Quipu was recorded in it’s entirety by yourself outside of the help of David Hurley on drums for the last 3 pieces. Ranging in a large array of instrumentation comprising horns, keys, organ, drums, guitars, bass and percussion. What this a conceptual album with planning towards the structures and specific tones desired or was this a more spontaneous venture that saw little planning?
I would say Quipu was both planned and spontaneous. Recording alone is a much different process than playing with a group of people in that you can’t really feed off of somebody else and that the inspiration for each part or riff will always be inspired by a single instrument playing, whether it be guitar, bass, drums, etc. A lot of Quipu was made by recording single parts and then combining them later in ways I would have never come up with had I tried to just sit down and write a whole song. I also do things like take a solo from one part I’ve recorded and place it on a completely different song. Most of the time it’s a really cool result.
What types of guitars, amps and pedals did you utilize on the recording of Quipu?
I was using a Les Paul and an original Carvin X100B tube amp with matching 4×12 cab. For effects I used a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Boss Supershifter, Electroharmonix Big Muff, as well as many digital vst effects.
What was the most challenging aspects of recording Quipu?
The most challenging part was mixing it. I was much more of an amateur in live recording back when I recorded this album. I wanted this album to sound “live” and when you are recording everything one track at a time by yourself, that can be difficult. Mixing multi tracked drums is definitely the most challenging aspect. The sound quality isn’t up to par with what I’m doing these days, but I still think it sounds great and it was definitely part of the learning process.
There is the obvious influence on this record in the fusion realm of the early 70’s, what records from that golden period of fusion were you heavily into during the time you made this album?
I tend to be into the heavier side of fusion. Of all the music I love, which is a lot, I would have to say that my all time favorite stuff is the heavy fusion coming out from 69-73, most of it stemming from Miles Davis‘ electric period (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live at Philharmonic Hall, Live at the Fillmore East/West, Ahgarta, Pangaea, Get up with it, On the Corner). Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Lost Trident Sessions, and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Magma’s Kobaia, 1001 Degrees Centigrade, MDK, Live in Japan 1975, Udu Wudu, and Attahk. Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency and Turn It Over. Soft Machine 3-7. Larry Young’s Lawrence of Newark, Love Cry Want, Fuel, Spaceball. Herbie Hancock’s M’wandishi, Sextant, Crossings, Headhunters.
What inspired you to choose the name Quipu for your latest full length?
I went to Peru when I was 14 and again when I was 19. They have a really amazing culture and I always loved the artwork from there. A quipu, sometimes called talking knots, is a sort of necklace that was used to encode information. They have a series of different length cords hanging off them that represented different numerical values. I liked the idea of embedding information into artwork, and thought the name fit the music on this record.
You have been running your own recording studio for some time in San Diego, what are some of the most memorable sessions you have had at your studio and the many you utilize in your area?
The most memorable sessions are always when The Egyptian Lover comes down. I’m co-producing a lot of the songs on his new album “1984” coming out later this year. He’s a true legend of the original LA electro/hip hop scene, and has the stories to back it up. Just when I think I’ve heard his craziest story yet, he’s got a hundred other one’s to top it. Another great session was very recently. Zuriel Waters of the Seesaw Ensemble was in San Diego from New York and we put together an improv group to record one night. I was on Rhodes electric piano, with Moses Constable on Bass, Phillip MacNitt on guitar, Mike Hams on drums, Austin Reitz on baritone sax and bass clarinet, and Zuriel Waters on alto sax. The recordings turned out amazing. I’m looking for a label to do a vinyl release of them and have a couple prospects, so hopefully they’ll be out later this year!
There is always talk of who are the best guitar players out right now, which guitar players make your top ten list that are still doing it to this day or are new?
I’m actually very lucky to be good friends with one of my favorite guitarists out right now, Isaiah Mitchell of Earthless. I’ve seen them countless times and he’s always so great to watch. I also really enjoy Kawabata Makoto, especially live. I love his freedom and intensity. I saw Magma in NYC this past summer and their new, young guitarist James Mac Gaw was incredible.
Have you had any opportunities to play guitars pre-dating the 40’s and if you have would you ever consider making songs with them for album use with these early eras of the guitar?
I haven’t really played many guitars from that era, but I would love to. I really into Robbie Basho and I know he played on a guitars that were around 100 years old, and they sound incredible. I would definitely consider doing a record like that. I have a project with Brian Grainger (Milieu) called Free Festival that is coming out with our 2nd record later on this year on the Freescha owned label Attacknine. It’s a psychedelic folk record that definitely has that sort of influence on it.
David Hurley is a close friend and fellow bandmate of yours in many projects, what does his percussion and drumming voice on Quipu mean to you and how long have you been playing with him?
It’s a funny story how Dave and I came to start playing together. I first met Dave when I was 14 years old. He’s a few years older than me and was playing in a pretty popular local punk band called Against The Wall. I was a fan and they released their first album on my cousin’s label Accident Prone Records. I didn’t really “know” him but I had met him a few times and knew of him. About 4 years ago I was talking with a friend and he mentioned an article he read in San Diego Citybeat about this free jazz band in San Diego. That band was Seesaw Ensemble. He sent me a link to their myspace and I was completely blown away. It was some of the most amazing new music I had ever heard, and it was coming out from my same town. I looked at their pictures and noticed the drummers name was David Hurley. I couldn’t believe it. I had been looking for a really good drummer for a long time to record with and just thought this was the most perfect opportunity. I contacted him and we talked about music, etc and we decided to do some recording together. We both have a deep love for Magma and talked about doing a Zeuhl band. I wrote a song and had him come over and record the drum tracks. That song is Walomendem, the last track on Quipu. We had an immediate musical connection and I’m so happy to see that song released. We’ve been playing together ever since then and at this point it’s hard to imagine making music without including him in someway.
David Hurley “Cosmic Moon March”
In your progressive rock outfit, Astra, you guys had the chance to perform in front of +10,000 people right before Hawkwind did their headlining set. Where is this band going in the future with touring and album releases?
We actually played right after Hawkwind, which was even more unbelievable. That was hands down the most amazing show I’ve ever played. The sound was amazing, the crowd was amazing, and we went through one hellish day trying to get there. We’re about to go into the studio to record our 2nd full length album for Rise Above Records. There are no specific tours planned at this time, but we will definitely be playing out a lot once the record is done.
What is the highest state of connectivity you have felt with music and the meta-physical?
There have been so many memorable moments, but I would have to say the Brian Ellis/Byard Lancaster show at the Pharaoh’s Den tops the list. We had been playing and recording together for 4 days straight before that gig. There was an incredible energy in the room between us in the band, and between us and the audience. There was a universal feeling that came over the entire room and the music came together perfectly and spontaneously. It was incredible.
Parallax Sounds is the label responsible for the release of the album Quipu. In the linear notes you mention that it was recorded in late 2007 and 2008. How did you find the opportunity to work with Parallax Recordings in finally making sure these recordings see the light of day?
Anthony Merrill, owner of Parallax Sounds, contacted me saying he was a big fan and that they would love to release something with me. I made this album when I was working with Benbecula Records of Scotland, but they unfortunately decided to close their doors shortly afterwards. I sent Anthony the album and he really enjoyed it so we decided to go ahead with the release of it.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the labels family now?
It’s great to work with a label that believes in their artist’s music and allows them artistic freedom. Anthony is in the business for the right reason; the love of music. He’s doing a really great job so far with promotion and distribution and I’m really looking forward to the official release.
Porter Records is one of my favorite labels and has issued a few releases with you on them, how did you connect with that label and where do you see yourself going with Porter in the future?
I got into contact with Porter Records when the signed David Hurley to do a solo album. David told me about the label and it just seemed like a perfect fit. I had actually sent Luke Mosling from Porter the Quipu recordings some time ago but the timing wasn’t really right. Luke is another guy doing a label the right way and for the right reasons. He’s released so many amazing albums, some of which I consider some of my favorite records. He hooked me up to with Byard Lancaster, a Philadelphia Sax legend that’s played with everyone from Coltrane to Fela Kuti to Sun Ra, to do a collaboration album. The album is turning out incredible and should see a release in the near future with Porter.
For anyone not deeply rooted in the vast history of progressive rock and fusion, what are some of your favorite must own albums in the progressive rock and fusion genres?
All the albums I listed in the earlier question should give anyone trying to get into prog and fusion a great place to start.
There is a really heavy acid jazz chilled out 60’s fusion sounds on the piece Psaw from Quipu with some really wild organ and keyboard parts, what type of gear in that department did you utilize for this piece as it sounds like the inner workings of what Chick Corea and all those cats were doing in that period?
I was using a Korg MS2000 synthesizer for the organ parts through a wah and over drive. I also used a Fender Rhodes electric piano sound through delay, wah, and overdrive. I really love that overdriven sound of a Fender Rhodes on all those early Miles Davis records. It’s almost hard to distinguish if it’s a guitar or a keyboard sometimes. It’s a classic, legendary tone.
Thanks for your time Brian.