Name: Gerald Cleaver
Occupation: Producer, composer, drummer
Current release: Gerald Cleaver's Griots has just been released on 577 (in the USA) as well as Meakusma (in Europe). A remix of his debut electronic album Signs by legendary hip hop producer Hprizm is out now on 557 / Positive Elevation as well.
If these thoughts piqued your interest, you can also read our even more in-depth Gerald Cleaver interview as well as our HPrizm interview. Or visit his artist page on the website of 577 records.
When did you start getting interested in synthesizers?
I always had a passing interest in synthesizers - but as an instrument I relate to improvisationally. Personally, I think of guitars and synths as modifiers, meaning they have malleable characteristics that interest me and that I can relate to and which give me ideas as a drummer. The rhythmic and the timbral. Melodic, too. That’s the inspiration, looking eye-to-eye with those electric instruments. So, in actuality, this is an ongoing, widening relationship, based in possibilities. I had to start dealing with electronics because I knew it would broaden my hearing as a drummer.
The VCV, in a way, maximises those possibilities.
I like that it feels as if I’m handling the electricity, like a potter. I started with VCV Rack in 2018 and got really into it, made many, many patches in order to learn how different modules behave. Controlled experiments. So out of that came the patches for my first electronic album Signs. Today, I’m regularly using VCV Rack, Korg Minilogue, Koma Field Kit FX, Arturia Keylab 37 & Akai MPC Element.
The material on Signs was remarkably rhythmic and weirdly groovy. I say remarkable, because it seems like only few artists make use of the rhythmic potential of the modular. Can you comment on this potential from your perspective as a drummer?
Well, that’s a good question I don’t think I have an answer for. The best I can do is relate the idea of orbits. I guess an easier way to think about it is as multiple events or sorts of phrases with overlapping completion times. In playing free, I can generate a lot of orbits or initiate ideas that continue to be revisited and are modifiable.
Hprizm of Hip-Hop band Anti-Pop Consortium remixed Signs recently. He told me: "With modular production there are subtle moments that can extend into full pieces. Gerald had a lot, so I zeroed in on them for the remix project." He seems to be speaking directly about those orbits – among other things.
Wow. He took the DNA of the songs and made them his. I love it. And yes, in playing free or not, there’s sort of a hierarchy of support orbits - phrases that lead towards some sense of regularity or some that seem to go nowhere with no resolution in sight. Our habit of creating order makes it possible for me to insinuate parts of a phrase which will be completed by the listener. Same concept for the electronics. I like to set up orbits which people recognize as resultant rhythm. Same goes for melody and harmony.
I could listen to the drum beat of "Geri Allen" for hours.
Thanks. That’s sort of an example of the orbital thing. the drums are more a composite of timbral gestures, than a beat. There’s a lot going on that allows, I think, the listener to hear what they want or need to. On that song I used the MPC. Looking at sixteen pads definitely helps to get out of the the drum rut, definitely helps to revisualize the drum role.
To me, "Vireilles" is probably the highlight of the album. How did that piece come about and what was your interaction with David like?
Both songs, "Virelles" and "Akinmusire", were complete by the time I asked them to do it. David and I played with Tomasz Stanko for many years and that band got really close. So the interaction happened over many years. I started working on what was to become "Virelles" and I knew really early on that I was being inspired by David’s high musicality and unusual take on things. So once I finished it, I called him up to ask if he heard anything over it - and he made it what it is.
Your new album Griots feels neither like an extension of Signs, nor like a break. It's somehow a new take on similar ideas.
Griots was created under special circumstances, under duress at the height of the pandemic. Most of the record was completed in about 3 weeks. Those 3 weeks were very unusual in terms of sleep. Because of lingering jetlag and the existential issues, I felt I was just hurtling through space uncontrollably, while outside me things were literally at a standstill. So I’d sleep and be awake completely randomly, working all hours of the night and day. I think being in that zone definitely quelled the anxiety. But to answer your question more specifically, I didn’t have a blueprint. In thinking about preparation, I realize there’s a lot more of that going on dealing with other people. So far, with the electronics, the music evolves out of my experimenting. There’s a definite connection to how I learned to play drums, that sense of open-ended abandon.
The term "Griots" refers to the ancient African tradition of storytellers. The album specifically, and your music in general seems deeply rooted in your identity.
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 and willing to “represent”.
You've said: "It is very important to me to stress the importance of Tribe." What does that mean, concretely?
That means your people are everything to you, and vise versa. Number one, family. Fortunately I was born into a hip family. Number two, the next shell, extended family.
What was the role of music within these families?
The music set an ideal that I could see and feel from my dad’s friends. The music was theirs. They claimed ownership of it and pledged to hold it close. Seeing those ideals played out song after song inspired me to want to do the same thing with my life.
Modern societies no longer seem to work along those tribal ideals.
No, but singularity of purpose will make family of strangers. That’s the power of the music in action. The title Griots refers to the idea that to reach your full potential you need to be with all the actors, all the temperaments or personalities: visionary, archivist, nurturer, philosopher, historian, scientist, etc. And I set myself up in NYC, so I was drawn to the people I’m calling Griots because I consider them all of the above.
Can music be an agent for societal change?
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.