Capillary Action is a group comprised of intense musical changes, soaring arrangements, and on their latest album, Capsized, they do this using only acoustic instruments. To hear these speedy, disjointed playing tunes being played with the most passionate concentration is a worthwhile, interesing experience, especially considering the fact there is neary a distorted electric guitar or bass present on the record.
Capillary Action is currently embarking on a 6 month tour, with a stop in NYC at Le Poisson Rouge on April 7th. Along the way, the band will be playing dates with Lightning Bolt, Wolf Eyes, Dengue Fever, Nisennenmondai, Group Doueh, Soft Circle, and Charles Hayward of This Heat.
Check out with my interview with Jonathan Pfeffer, frontman and composer of Capillary Action after the jump. We discuss the idea of composition versus improvisation, more comical side of touring with Primus, meeting Craig Wedren, and more...
I see it less in terms of purity and more in terms of clarity. The switch occurred for a number of reasons but I would say the major impetus was that the harmonies I write, which tend to be extremely specific, were getting lost with the electric band and turning into pure noise.
The harmonies within the instruments themselves?
Right-- the chords, chord progressions. I think there's a certain amount of baggage you have to carry no matter what kind of instrument you play and I think playing strange chords through a distorted electric guitar puts you squarely in the "RAWK" canon and I wanted to get as far as I could away from all that. The switch also stemmed from my frustration over what I perceived as the electric guitar's lack of tactility.
Which isn't to say that it's impossible to be expressive on the electric but the nylon-string guitar feels so much more tangible and physical to me, which fit in quite nicely with this notion of corporeality-- natural, body sounds-- I wanted to explore with the new record. Which brings us back to your initial question about the purity of acoustic instruments.
I wanted to ask you how you felt about composition? It seems like your work is very calculated.
Extremely calculated, almost to the point where I'm not thinking about the events within a song in musical terms anymore, haha. What about composition do you want to know how i feel?
Why choosing to compose instead of improvise?
There's that old adage about needing to make things come out perfectly in art because you can't in real life and I think that's quite applicable to my work. But to think of composition as this cold, austere activity where spontaneity isn't involved would be silly and wrong or to think of improv as this place where "anything goes" would be just as naive. I don't necessarily see the two as separate entities; there's certainly a lot of improvisation in composition and vice versa. I feel like similar rules apply in either medium, at least they would if I were improvising.
The non-pretentious, non-snarky answer would be that performing a piece of music that I've slaved over suits my temperament more than creating something on the spot in front of an audience.
I'm aware that this comparison has become a total cliche at this point but the role I've cultivated for myself in Capillary Action is definitely more akin to a director than a traditional bandleader. You're less likely to hear me use music theory jargon than you are to hear me ask someone to play a part as if cotton candy were melting in their mouth or like they're a terminal illness spreading through someone's body. Or like their parent or guardian just walked in on them in a compromising position.
You mentioned the audience a few times, and I was wondering how you felt about connecting to different audiences. Your music is definitely on its own terms, I mean there are groups like Skeleton$, who I would compare you to, but I think Capillary Action is a band that really sounds like itself...but is the group able to connect with different sorts of audiences, being on this different plane from trends or rock idioms? Do you think you could ever be like Dirty Projectors, who I can see a tie to CA in ways with, and become enormously successful commerically?
I hope existing largely outside of contemporary trends will give the music a slightly longer lifespan.
Playing with Les Claypool, how was the reaction from/with the audience?
It was shocking how receptive his crowd was to us. I have no qualms whatsoever with confrontation, especially when it comes to this music, so I was fully prepared to get up there in front of his crowd and get pelted with tomatoes. I was ready to fight back with pineapples, haha. We would have just played 10x harder and made things more painful for everyone. But at nearly all the shows, save Atlantic City, we had everyone eating from the palms of our hands.
What happened in Atlantic City?
We got heckled pretty harshly.
Was it at the House of Blues?
Yeah, House of Blues. No one got particularly rowdy, though. No one threatened to kick our asses or slash our tires, which has happened at other shows. This one guy stood by the stage right next to Dan, our drummer, flatly hollering out put-downs for the entire set: "You suck. Stop. Give it up. You're shit. Seriously, you suck." At one point Dan looked over the guy and in a real human-to-human way gave him a, "really, dude?" sort of expression. The guy responded with an affirmative shrug, like he was the guy at the DMV whose job it was to tell you that actually have to go back home and get one more valid form of ID in order to renew your license.
In a way that must have felt good though, just as a validation.
Absolutely, it was incredible. It was so fascinating being a part of this gigantic rock show experience. You know, light shows, tour buses, drum techs, fruit plates. We had such a funny experience on the first day of the tour. We got the tour last minute (already in the midst of a 3-month tour, actually) so I had to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with logistics.
Lauren, our accordionist at the time, and I had to fly from Prague to London to New York to Seattle, drive down to Portland, then drive to Denver to meet up with the other guys, all in the span of about 3 days. Then we had to drive to Albuquerque to meet up with the tour. It was insane.
On our way down to Albuquerque, I get a call from Claypool's tour manager. He asks to speak to our front-of-house guy (fancy tourspeak for sound person). Keep in mind the five of us are doing this tour in our bassist's dad's dirty old pick-up truck because a rental van was too expensive.
"Uhh...we don't have one."
"Who's doing sound for you tonight?"
"Lemme talk to your tour manager."
There's a funny little pause and then he says he'll run sound for us.
Jason's the man. He saved our hides on a number of different occasions on that tour.
I remember later that night we were hanging out with their crew backstage later on, getting a feel for each other. They asked, "Where'd you guys park your bus?" They were probably more than a little incredulous of this ragtag opener but I'd like to think we earned our stripes after they saw us make those 9-hr drives every fucking day and play those shows like our lives depended on it.
Did Les Claypool specifically ask you to open? How did that feel? Getting that request? Were you a fan of Primus before?
Yeah, he did. It was surreal. It felt like we'd broken through to small degree. More often than not, it really feels like you're screaming at a wall in this business and to get an offer like that-- especially for a band that proudly has no representation, no management, no label, no agent, no publicist-- to get that call just makes you feel like you're probably doing something right.
I dug Primus when I was 11 or 12 but I wasn't a huge fan. I will admit I got pretty psyched when they pulled out "Too Many Puppies" at the Calgary show.
I read an interview where you said that Craig Wedren from Shudder to Think was at a show of yours.
Haha, do all WFMU interviews devolve into a minor-league indie rock celeb name-dropping fests? That reminds me: our accordionist wants to meet Tom Scharpling. Can you make that happen?
Yeah, Craig happened to be at this New York show of ours. He actually missed our set but we connected on account of our connection to Joe Lally, we exchanged information and kept in touch. He had some really kind things to say about the record I gave him. I could have just died right there. More so than the whole Claypool thing, Shudder to Think was and still is such an important influence on Capillary Action. Not only did he like my band but he was such a gracious guy on top of it.
He came out to see us at this crappy Hollywood bar later on in the tour. I'll never forget it. Then we got to open for Shudder later that year on their reunion tour. Fuck, man, I had no idea I'd be getting into any of this when I signed up for the job. I started out just wanting to hear what a song would sound like with drums in the mix...
I mean it's weird because I can hear this tie to Dirty Projectors in your music. A small one... groups like Skeleton$, Dirty Projectors... The way the vocals work with the music...
Sure, I think Skeleton$, Dirty Projectors, Icy Demons, we all live in the same neighborhood. Maybe in the same zip code in different neighborhoods or on the same block in homes designed by drastically different architects. I have nothing but admiration for Dirty Projectors. I've known Dave since about 2005 and when you meet him and see him perform, even back then, you knew it was only a matter of time before other people would take notice. I'd like to think that Dirty Projectors opened the floodgates or at least pricked a hole in the dam for groups like us and Skeleton$ to come crashing through. Who knows?