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Elastic Time and Electromags: Q and A with Gayle Ellett

11-29-2022 | By Sander Roscoe Wolff | Issue 124

Gayle Ellett - Topanga Canyon, 2022, Photo by Rita Street

Gayle Ellett, Topanga Canyon. 2022, Photo by Rita Street

Gayle Ellett is one of the founding members of Djam Karet, an instrumental quartet that recently released their 20th album, Island In The Red Night Sky. He's also working on the second release from his own band, Gayle Ellett and The Electromags, and is actively involved in a number of other projects.

Djam Karet (an Indonesian phrase that means 'elastic time') was birthed in the 80s as a purely improvisational rock band, with two guitars, bass, and drums. It didn't take long for them to include keyboards, sequences, and other structured materials that led, ultimately, to a balance of composed and improvised music that evoked a multitude of influences, including Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Tangerine Dream.

About 15 years ago, (drummer) Chuck (Oken Jr) sent me 90 short, incomplete tunes. I went through that entire group of tunes and noted if they were "pads" or "patterns," and the key, etc. I would stack a few together, to make a big synth bed. And then I had (the band) all come out to my studio here in Topanga Canyon, where we added more layers on top. Chuck played the drum kit I have here. Chuck, and guitarist Mike (Henderson) both got their parts on both albums all done in one day. Henry (Osborne) took two days to get his bass parts down. Then I added more instruments, like my harmonium. I love that thing! It blends in great with synths!

Did any of the other band members bring new material to the project?

No, I wrote all the music myself. Chuck and Henry will probably write the next album at Chuck's studio, that's the plan! Whomever owns the studio we are using for that album, at that time, they end up being the main producer/decider.

To what do you attribute the band's remarkable staying power?

We make entirely self-indulgent music, the way we want to. So we are very fortunate! And, to keep things new and interesting, we keep changing our sound. I'm sure the next album will be quite different.

How did Djam Karet come to be?

We met at Pitzer College, in Claremont California, down wind of Los Angeles. Chuck Oken and I were students. Mike Henderson and Henry Osborne were "town-ees" - local guys. Chuck, Henry, and Mike were in another band, Happy Cancer, and sometimes Chuck and Mike would play in one of the bands I was in.

What was the original idea for the group?

We all wanted to play totally improvised music, where the drums and bass were on equal footing with the guitars (like in your average Jazz band). For the first few years, all of our rehearsals and gigs were totally improvised. (We would) just tune up, and start playing. It is really fun! Sometimes it is great, and many times it fails. It teaches you to really learn how to listen to each other.

With improvisation, part of the challenge is not falling back on old habits. How did you keep things fresh?

That is difficult. For me, changing instruments helps a lot. Sometimes I play synths, other times guitar. In Hillmen, another improvised band I'm in, we cycle thru different guitar players and bass players.

Djam Karet, photos by Rita Street

Djam Karet, photos by Rita Street: L-R Gayle Ellett, Henry Osborne, Chuck Oken Jr, Aaron Kenyon (occasionally), Mike Henderson

At some point, DK started composing. What precipitated that shift?

We started to add in tapes of nature sounds and then, later, some synth sequences using the Ensonic Mirage (an early digital sampling keyboard). (As a result) we wanted/needed some structure around those parts.

Was it a challenge to adapt to a growing repertoire?

It is, now! When we headlined the three day Crescendo Festival in France, on the beach, about 12 years ago, we had to play for two hours. For us that was only 12 songs! But they are so long and complicated that I had to read charts for every song, even the ones I wrote myself! And I had to play a four keyboard setup. So it was tricky! I was playing with one hand while my other hand had to be switching patches on the Minimoog, or the setting on the Mellotron.

Looking back over the huge body of work, how does it feel?

Kinda huge! Really pretty amazing! But also it almost seems like it all happened quite effortlessly. It's what we do, over many years, so you just naturally end up with a huge body of work. We are lucky!

Gayle Ellett and The Electromags has your name right at the front. How did that project arise?

Djam Karet was going to make a Rock record, and I wrote 22 song fragment ideas for it. At the last second, a week before scheduled rehearsals, it got cancelled by one of the guys. So I threw away all that music, and I decided to form a new band (I currently play in seven bands) to make an album that featured me wailing on guitar and playing memorable melodies. I've never really written rock songs, and never made a "Gayle Plays Guitar" album, so I thought, "HECK! Let's make one." And so the band was born. Mark Cook and Craig Kahn are great! And they love to work hard and record, so I am really happy about that!

Shiny Side Up album art by Matt Mahurin

Gayle Ellett and The Electromags' Shiny Side Up album art by Matt Mahurin

The album is an interesting blend of genres and feelings. On some of the super-clean guitar passages, it gets downright jazzy. Other times, it's like a freight train, just blasting down the tracks.

I'm old. I was born in 1960. The 1970s were my teenage years. Fusion and Prog were really big and popular, and on the radio a lot. So I've put a lot of those styles into that album, for sure! It's natural for me.

I particularly like some of the slower tunes, perhaps because they allow your playing to stretch out a bit.

I tried not to rush things too much, and leave some space. I am a "phrase player," not a scale shredder. I tried really hard to make good music on that album. I don't like guitar albums full of super fast solos, over boring rhythm sections. I wanted Mark and Craig to shine too.

This first album, Shiny Side Up, came out a few months ago, and you're already working on a new one. This time, though, you're soliciting input from a bunch of special guests. Why?

I like to change things up. I've been wanting to get some old friends on an album with me, and I thought, "Let's make a 'friends' album." Many of these folks I've known since the 1980s, before the Internet. I would send our DK mailing list of reviewers, DJs, and distributors to foreign bands, and I would ask them for their list back. And everyone I contacted, they did just that! And we became friends. Then I decided to expand the lineup to old college pals, etc. So now I've got 15 folks who are currently recording their parts, and about five have already finished and sent me their solos back.

I received great solos from Marc Ceccotti (Edhels-Monaco), Thierry Payssan (Minimum Vital-France), Frederic L'Epee (Shylock-France), Paul Richards (California Guitar Trio-USA), Dudley Taft (USA), Joee Corso (USA), Alvaro Bianchi (from Buenos Aires, Argentina), and Jim Crawford (USA). I'm still waiting for tracks back from about 9 more musicians. It's going to be a fun, and nicely varied album! 

What was the creative process for this new album?

Basically, I'd write some songs, drive to Craig's house (near me in Topanga too), teach him the songs and we would track his drums there at his studio. Then I could come home and add rhythm guitars and Hammond B3 to the songs, and then send them off to Mark Cook for bass (he lives in Arlington, Texas). Then I would try to guess which songs might be a good fit for the folks I am sending them too. Sometimes that worked! Other times, I would send them additional songs, until they could find something they thought they could play to. Weirdly, sometimes other musicians say my music is kinda too complicated, so I tried to write music that might be a bit easier to play to. I get bored with normal chords, so I keep making up new ones, and the music sometimes stays a bit complicated!

I tried really hard to not make the technical side apparent. I want the music to be full of "flow," and for it to sound like fun rocking music. I hide a lot of complicated chords in the choruses, to make it sonically interesting (to me at least!) Often, the verses have "2 note" power chords, but the choruses have "5 note" jazz chords. Switching styles within the same song is fun!

The Hillmen of Topanga

The Hillmen of Topanga, courtesy of the artist.

You mentioned The Hillmen, officially The Hillmen Of Topanga, earlier. How did that band come to be?

My pal Peter Hillman is a great jazz drummer, and he lives up the mountain from me. His house overlooks the Pacific ocean. He loves to play totally improvised music, so he and me are the 2 constantly present musicians in that group. Everyone I know is a guitar player, so I got kinda stuck playing keyboards. We track onto his 24 track Studer and thru his old Neve console. The music is jazzy improv, somewhat with a Jam-Band type sound, depending on who we are playing with. No organized structure ever.

So, in a way, it is almost like returning to your DK roots.

That is entirely true! It is really fun, very challenging and, when it is working, it is great! Again, it teaches you about really listening. 90% of your brain needs to be listening, and only 10% to play your part. It is hard to talk about, but everyone should do it. It is very humbling, because it is often horrible! It makes you really appreciate the spaces between the notes, and the solos not played. People who show up and solo too much in our group never get invited back!

We are trying to make music that is evolving and moving from one state to another. I'm a big fan of Complexity Theory, and Improv, classical, long-form music all have that evolving aspect. It is a non-linear dynamic system, like economics or biology. Pete Hillman is such a damn great drummer that he effortlessly shifts the beat around all the time, and I try to move on to new keys and modes.

You mentioned the Kelp Dwellers. How did that group come together?

The Kelp Dwellers - Album Art by Merlin Montgomery

The Kelp Dwellers - Album Art by Merlin Montgomery

The Kelp Dwellers plays a type of Surf Music. Instrumental, jangly "guitar" music, with a fun and easy-going attitude. Sunny Southern California Party music! The group is lead by Todd Montgomery. Todd is a teacher at Malibu High School, and writes all the music. His main instrument that he plays in The Kelp Dwelelrs is actually a 4 & 8-string electric mandocello (and occasionally guitar).

I first met him when I was in another totally improvised 12-piece group in Topanga called The Lost Tribe. He played sitar and I played analog synth. Later we formed our own group, Fernwood, where we made 3 award-winning albums: Almeria, Sangita, and Arcadia. Fernwood plays instrumental World/Americana music.

Anyway, a few years ago he asked me if I would join his new group The Kelp Dwellers (with Craig Kahn on drums). Todd wanted me to play bass, which seemed like a good idea to me! I really didn't play too much bass before that, so it was a great chance to learn.

We meet every week or so at Craig's Topanga studio to play music and learn Todd's new compositions. It is really fun! We are making the 2nd album now, the first one being titled "Surfacing." It is coming along really well, so we're all happy about that. I did end up playing a few guitar solos on the debut album, maybe on half the songs. And the main recording for this 2nd album (the drums, bass and rhythm guitar parts) are now finished. And then Todd will add in his solos, etc. It will be released sometime next year.

What are some of the other projects you're currently involved with?

I'm a sideman on some of the groups I play in. They are singer/songwriters Tim O'Gara, and Joee Corso. I do what they tell me to do. Often I'm playing my Greek bouzouki to their acoustic guitar. I play lead guitar in a 10-piece Blues Rock band with Jim Crawford, so that's fun too! I was in a 12-piece contemporary Arabic music group for about 15 years, but the leader, Hani Naser, sadly died of a heart attack. I often record with Mark Cook's group, Herd Of Instinct, and I also record a ton with the Swedish shoegaze group Ecovillage. The three Fernwood albums I made with Todd Montgomery are the best albums I've made! I've played on over 120 albums.

Lots of interesting information about Gayle's professional history can be found at his website: GayleEllet.com. To learn more about Djam Karet, visit their website, DjamKaret.com, including solo/side projects by Mike Henderson, a collaboration between Henderson & Oken, and another between Ellett, Oken, and Richard Pinhas of HELDON. Their full catalog can be downloaded/streamed from BandCamp.com.