Name: Gerald Cleaver
Occupation: Drummer, multi instrumentalist
Current Release: Until 2020, Gerald Cleaver had made a name for himself mainly as a highly accomplished jazz drummer. This changed with Signs, an intriguingly idiosyncratic voyage into modular electronics, filled with tactile timbres and otherworldly rhythmical shuffles. His latest full-length Griots continues these explorations. It is available June 4th via Positive Elevation / 577 Records. There will also be a remix album of Signs by NYC based composer, producer, and performer Hprizm on June 18th.
Recommendations: I really am inspired by the development of Willem De Kooning, from his beginnings as a draftsman, very detailed, to his vast lines which convey so much to me, in his last works.
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley.
If you enjoyed this interview with Gerald Cleaver, visit his artist page on the website of 577 records. He is also on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I wrote my first piece of music in 1989, in college. It was inspired by my Mom dancing what I distantly recall her calling the Georgia Stomp. It was so soulful that it inspired a bass line that turned into a song.
More music came out of being in a band that performed regularly on campus. Back then, especially, it was more inspiring to write with specific players in mind. I was always drawn to the piano and that became sort of the default music-creating tool, even though I don’t play piano.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am definitely very much influenced by the foundational elements of jazz music. Out of the innovation came a codification of the music as a tool to better understand the music. This codification is not alive. The innovation is alive and well and as encompassing as ever. So, early on, my mind was blown by different musicians, and composers and I went through intense listening to try to just understand a little better what was making me feel the way I do when I hear that music. And the foundational elements helped me to have a workable language to deal with.
I’m still using the lessons of the language; melodic, harmonic, rhythmic.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Oh, very much so. I grew up in Detroit, a solidly working-class, primarily black city. I didn’t attend school with a white kid until high school. I identify in such a way as give respect to the way I was raised and to that sophisticated city. Meaning, I grew up with parents you would now call “woke”. On top of that, my dad was a jazz musician. So, I was lucky to have that kind of foundation from which to jump off.
Then, add Detroit, a city that’s still in the cultural vanguard. Both of those contributed to me being able & willing to “represent”.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Ha, my main creative challenge is my physicality. That will never change. In fact, muscles degrade over time, so I’m sunk! In the meantime, along came electronics, which offer limitless possibilities.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My musical involvement with electronics is very new. I’ve been at it for about 4 years, at various levels of engagement. And the extent of my gear were plugins. Since then I dealt with Logic and Ableton, using Arturia sounds and I picked up a couple of synths but what really changed the game for me is VCV Rack, a modular synth emulation. Being able to modulate every aspect of sound really appeals to me.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
That would be VCV Rack for me. Every other way I’ve made music over the years, except for singing, has been keyboard-based. And I don’t play piano. So, dealing with sound in those terms is exciting and inspiring.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Only recently have I started a collaboration with a friend that involves file sharing. Playing so-called free jazz is is intensely collaborative. But I’ve not really worked together on songs. But I’m liking the slower-developing communication and development of going back and forth.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m a pretty early-riser. And I’m pretty into starting to listen to music kind of right off the bat. So, going through my day, I’m on headphones then speakers, and back to headphones, ha. What that obviously means is that I do a lot of listening. Interspersed in there is shedding, meaning drums and music-making.
Generally speaking, something cool almost always arises out of a snag in VCV Rack, and in gear in general, so I’m in between problem-solving and exploration and editing.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
A real breakthrough was Roscoe Mitchell hiring me to be a part of the Note Factory in 1995. That singular event set me off on my career path. Looking back, Roscoe helped clarify my musical aesthetics which inform all of my playing, in both the so-called inside and outside.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I feel fortunate, in that, I have an easy time getting to a creative state. I like the word Flow: it’s sort of an alignment of your physical and mental energies in a non-judgmental space. Practicing is traditionally that - a practice that is intended to achieve specific and progressive physical and mental goals. So that practice over the years as definitely helped.
But I think what has helped the most is just the doing: being in creative environments and having the freedom to sink or swim.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
The song, "The Dance Of The Maya", John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Inner Mounting Flame is the album. I was playing along with this record I’d just discovered in my Dad’s collection. So I’m playing along, really digging the meter changes, just grooving with my headphones on. When McLaughlin comes in screaming with the melody, the harmony turned sinister, my heart stopped and I literally threw off the headphones. That harmony still scares me, in a good way.
In terms of healing, I can’t determine the need, I can only produce relative to my environment. I’ve been in circumstances where people come up to me on a bad night and thank me profusely. That’s humbling. And I’ve been booed, ha. Well, not me specifically but close enough.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
That’s a really tough question. The dominant caste assumes ownership of any- and everything. I can’t even begin to address that frame of mind. For me it’s moment-by-moment, case-by-case. It brings to mind the idea of identity. Am I degrading the specificity in trying to make sense of it? I feel cultural signs & symbols have to be held very lightly, and that what I assume to be is not necessarily what is. And that’s also called life.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I’ve realized over the years how visual the music has become for me. It always had that aspect but now it’s a lot more present. I often feel compelled to describe music in visual ways.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I feel music is neutral. It can be a tool. It can take you into war and it can put a baby to sleep. We, meaning everyone, are the agents of change and we use all tools at our disposal.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
The great Tony Williams said, “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t play”. I’m clueless.