Just me and John Cage in my head: An interview with turntapelist Rrill Bell

Using a custom-made kit composed of cast-off relics of the Tape Age (foremost among them his trusty modified Fostex analogue multi-tracker) and surrounded by piles of cassettes, Rrill Bell assembles complex abstract emotive tone poems on the fly, one re-contextualized fragment at a time, drawing from the formative inspirations of radical scratch culture, Cagean thought, early tape music, musique concrete and various strains of free music practice.

Can you talk about your background? What led you to experiment with cassettes and tape players in the first place?

I grew up in the 80s in rural NW Ohio. I’m pretty much a hick, or a corndog as Mike Watt would say, a term I am very fond of. I was, I am a pure corndog at heart. Where I grew up, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings today, but it is a cultural wasteland. There was no art, no bands or any sort of DIY culture. I played drums/percussion in the school band program from sixth grade on and became more focused on that in my early teens. At some point I ended up attending a percussion summer camp at Oberlin when I was around 14, like for classical percussion, I’m not sure how that happened or where I would have known about that, possibly saw it in a magazine or some flyer at the drum shop. At this camp we had a music history class taught by Al Otte, where I was introduced to John Cage for the first time. I can still remember him talking about 4’33” and referring to it as a “proverbial fuck you”, for whatever reason, that stuck with me. Anyways, that week blew my mind and changed my life forever, no doubt. I went back home and got all the Cage books I could find at the nearest uni library and dove into that world. Around the same time, I got exposed to jazz in a big way. I took vibraphone lessons from a multi-instrumentalist who was pretty central to the Toledo scene. I was not a good student, but I had the last lesson on Saturday and when we were done he would talk and talk with my precocious ass while downing large quantities of peanut brittle, about jazz and society basically, history, the whole context, politics, the oral tradition, improvisation. That lasted maybe a year, and I dove deep into that music as a listener. If I’m being honest I wanted to be an improvising drummer, but my best friend since very small times had kind of beat me to it and already started heading down that path, so I doubled down on studying classical percussion as my thing. It’s silly how things like that can determine what you do! 

I made my way back around to improvising on the drums years later, fortunately. Anyways, I figured out what it would take to get into a conservatory and became a practice room rat for the last couple years of high school. It’s funny, but back then I’m still in my tiny town, right? Just me and John Cage in my head, but no clue that free improvisation existed, like the European strains and all that. For the fuck of it, and to avoid starting nightly practice on audition pieces, I would improvise freely on the marimba, just play crazy atonal shit and whatever came to mind, it was fun but I wasn’t precious about it, just playing. I told my dopey band director, who would sometimes pass through the room, that it was my audition piece and he always bought it, but would go: “And you had to memorize all that!?” Corndog shit. There’s a beautiful documentary on the painter Philip Guston where he says “Well, you gotta be from somewhere!” – I love that.

Fast forward: I got into conservatory but hated it, maybe I was a pretty intimidated corndog, but it also sucked for real, at least Eastman did for me personally. I dropped out after two semesters, with the intention of studying writing and music in Michigan after a year off, but then I went to work and decided not to go back to school. A couple years later, in 1995, I left the States for good.

How did cassettes come into play (figuratively speaking)?

Growing up in the era I did, tapes were no big deal. I mean they were pretty determining to how I came to experience music in many ways, but they were a mainstream medium of course. I didn’t have any Beatles records: I had the entire Beatles song catalogue in alphabetical order, dubbed to cassette from the radio, from FM 104’s “Beatles A-to-Z Weekend”. Me and my best friend made tape collages in junior high from his mom’s old 45 collection, just to amuse ourselves. I taped Brave New Waves off of Canadian radio in the middle of the night. That sort of stuff. And ultimately I left the States with nothing but a backpack full of clothes and books, a walkman and five dubbed Ornette Coleman cassettes. So they were always just there!

Eventually you relocated to Europe.

After drifting around some and working various jobs, a couple years later I ended up in the German rustbelt, the Ruhrgebiet. There I quickly realized that I needed to start playing the drums again in order not to lose my fucking mind, and I slowly started to try to focus as much energy on that as possible. I also discovered European free improvisation there (a problematic term, no doubt, but I will use it as a shorthand). I just got lucky and fell in with a couple enthusiasts early on, on the periphery of my then girlfriend’s social circle, I was able to take over a little rehearsal room in a bunker for cheap from one of them, and had a borrowed drum set. What I didn’t have was a record collection: instead I had loads of dubbed tapes. I had like five library cards from cities around the Ruhrgebiet and beyond, and I travelled around on the bus and train collecting stuff to dub to tape at home, like my friends. We were like “Dude, you have to go to Krefeld, they have a ton of Anthony Braxton, someone there is a fan”. My German girlfriend had left me (and the country) by then and I held onto music tight and tried to make the most of my adopted post-industrial wasteland home. I managed to enroll at uni (in comparative literature) and get a student visa and a decent part-time job at uni, and back then at least health insurance for students was dirt cheap and you got a free rail pass good for the whole state with your tuition, which was ridiculously cheap (as it should be). After a couple of serious semesters, I quit going to class but stayed enrolled as long as I could get away with it and devoted myself to music. 

Now for the critical moment… At first I only played music with a friend who played guitar. We basically taught ourselves how to play free improvised music of the kind we were listening to (he was big into Fred Frith). He was using a simple looper and I wanted to add some level of “sampling” to my playing, so I reached for the dictaphone that I had bought years before in France for language learning purposes (I bugged my bosses at the time to record hours of homemade vocabulary lists to tape for me). I used this dictaphone with a built-in speaker to record us while we were playing and then after ten minutes or so while I was playing the drums I would rewind it and then play it back while we were playing, usually flipping it to half-speed or that sort of thing. This duo evolved into a laptop (my friend) and cheap electronics (me) thing. I had no money so I bought the cheapest samplers I could find on (then new) Ebay: Akai phrase trainers. I ran the dictaphone through the phrase trainer (really a brilliant lo-fi sampler with no memory, designed to help blues lawyers learn Clapton solos note-for-note but secretly a perfect tool for free improv), and I used other cheap keyboards and things. It was essentially mostly plunderphonics at the time, from my dubbed tape collection, weird tapes from the library, bizarre used tapes from Ebay, with some of my own domestic and instrumental dubbed material. I played live any chance I could get, in pretty much whatever context, which included like club improv sessions at the time, like improvised triphop, dub and drum’n’bass with a live band. Before heading out one night for such a gig, I found the trash DJ mixer I had been using was busted, so I took a newly acquired Fostex cassette multi-tracker with me to use as a replacement. That night it dawned on me that I could play my tapes on there too and route them so that I could sample from them on the fly. That’s the same deck I use today, the heart of my kit (I have probably twenty of that particular model, some back-ups and some that I use in pretty sprawling set-ups at home – like a kit where I slice up 24 tracks of incoming tape material using MIDI gates triggered by various sequencers – I probably have 30 cassette multi-trackers in all). Anyways, I quickly fell in love with this kit, the phrase trainers and the Fostex deck, and started to wring every last bit of expressive potential I could out of it. This lead to developing a way to scratch with tapes on that deck. I also added a couple digital loopers early on to be able to build up complex structures on the fly. That central rig, my primary live rig, has changed very little since about 2006/7, though the music has evolved radically.

How do you approach this work with cassettes – “emotive tone poems”, as was mentioned in your bio? Do you choose specific elements, archival bits, field recordings? In a way, it reminds of a free improv, free jazz sort of way of working/performing.

Ha, it is probably time to retire that slightly cringey phrase, maybe I’d tend to say “abstract expressionist” now. Yeah, my live playing (which was for years my central focus) is very much inspired by free music practice. My all-time creative hero is Ornette Coleman, he has remained a huge inspiration. I even got to meet him briefly back in 2011, one of the best days of my life. Improvisation and chance practices play a central role in everything I do. I’ve realized that my music is basically an attempt to reconcile these twin formative influences of Ornette and Cage – combining the depersonalization and openness to outside influence and contingency of chance practices and the centering of personal or emotional expression on an abstract level.

I consider what I do live to be free improvisation. I don’t believe in non-idiomatic improvisation, at least not in 2020. I have kind of a conflicted relationship to the free improv thing in a way. I moved to Berlin fully intending to be a part of that world (after having been deeply involved in it from the Ruhrgebiet) and then I suddenly wasn’t feeling it anymore, when it came to group improvisation (outside of a few long-term band relationships). So I gradually stopped playing in those contexts or pursuing that. I miss the community, but I have found my people on the periphery and am lucky to have friends who get and support me. Any time I feel like I’m just going through the motions, like my heart is not in it, I quit. This has made for a life of ruptures, but I’m alright with that. I’m not like that outside of art, I am a pretty loyal and committed person. But if you can’t be like that in art, where can you be like that, you know?

I go into a set without any preconceived plan, responding to the energy of the room and the acoustics, the PA. I try to mix things up from night to night. I am not precious about where I’ll play. I like to see if I can make shitty rooms and PAs work, I’ll try to play a club setting with a bar where I have to assert myself, take over the space, but I absolutely love super concentrated listening environments too. Up until a couple years ago I always tried to play the street music stage in Neukölln in the summer. I like playing for people that don’t have any context as much as for the loveable scene freaks. I don’t use prepared loops or anything, I build my “instant compositions” on the fly from little fragments scratched or sampled from my own cassettes, at some point I transitioned to using all original material, barring an occasional re-contextualized thing recorded off of YouTube that I come upon while doing thematic research. I see the music as duo music: me and the tapes. Or trio music: me and the tapes and life. I use certain chance practices to let them talk, then I listen and shape the direction of the music. This all happens really super fast. Apparently I must be fascinated by this feedback process, because I have been doing it for a while now.

The actual sound material can run the gamut. Domestic recordings, field recordings, electronic recordings (lots of drum machines in there over the last years, which get very abstracted), acoustic recordings (especially percussion, in particular metalophones), melodic fragments I ask friends to record for me. I realized at some point that these hundreds of tapes are the world behind the world. The backstory. As long as I keep building that world everything keeps moving. I typically do a kind of composting process with that material. What this means in the concrete is that, for example, a recording of me improvising on vibraphone is dubbed to tape, then it may be used in an ad-hoc multi-dictaphone installation in a natural setting, which I record, fragments of which are redubbed to tape, then perhaps used for scratching or sampling within a live context at a later date, which is always recorded from my mixer, and then perhaps a fragment of that live recording gets collaged with other such elements in assembling a record (parts of Ballad of the External Life work this way). I like this layering and abstraction over time and space. It adds depth, to my ears. At the very least on a sonic level, as the individual microsound morphology/evolution becomes quite complex in a good way, in my opinion.

I do lots of other things these days, but the tapes are pretty much always involved. I’ve developed a number of rigs or set-ups that they can be plugged into. It is nice and modular in its way. But my Vagabond Laws tape on Gertrude Tapes is a very good representation of the live thing of the past several years.

There has been a resurgence of interest in cassettes and tape labels are popping up. Do you feel part of this new wave of tape underground culture?

Yes and no. I guess I feel like I’ve been doing this too long to be a young tape lion or something as a performer/composer. But I definitely feel right at home in the community of people releasing music on cassette.

I love tape labels, adore tapes, it’s a beautiful format for many reasons. So I am all for it for releases.

I think it is an underused format for music making. Like not really underused in the frequency that you see it now, more like underused in its expressive potential sometimes. But maybe that is the typical curve of dissemination, who knows. If I’m being honest, I am torn between feeling that a) it is often just an empty signifier without any musical/aesthetic/expressive function or raison d’être, and b) that I should not make assumptions about why people do things and just assume they do them out of love like me. As usual, I should probably just pick “b” and move on with my life!

Still, I mean you can make a grand a month on Patreon just showing your subscribers how to make tape loops or use a multi-tracker and hawking them your less-than-inspired out-takes. It’s a little weird! Not talking about Hainbach, as he is sweet and makes engrossing and worthwhile content, but just saying this brave new tape world sometimes doesn’t feel all that idiosyncratic or underground. That having been said, I feel like the world has caught up with me and my other OG “tape DJ” brothers and sisters and I feel very fortunate for that. I feel like ears are now primed to appreciate this music. I hope I have not just alienated all my potential listeners for generations to come!

You have an upcoming release called Ballad of the External Life. Could you talk about it?

Before I forget to mention who is releasing it: Ballad will be released this fall on Elevator Bath, a really great label from Austin, Texas. It will be my first solo release on vinyl. I love releasing cassettes, but this work was intended for vinyl and works real well as an LP. I’m thrilled to have found such a great listener and supporter in Colin from EB.

The roots: the record is inspired by the Hugo von Hofmannsthal poem of the same title (“Ballade des äußeren Lebens” in German). It’s the first poem I managed to read in German in my early years here. I translated it roughly into English when I was learning German. The last line “like heavy honey from the hollow comb” (“wie schwerer Honig aus den hohlen Waben”) has stayed with me for over twenty years. Just one of those things that hits you in the gut. Life, love, meaning from emptiness. “Makeup on empty space” (Anne Waldman). Anyways, I always wanted to use that line itself as a title, it was just waiting for the right moment or context.

Since around 2015 I’ve been working on another record that is really close to my heart. It’s tentatively titled False Flag Rapture and it’s constructed around a domestic field recording I made of my late grandmother singing a religious song in Slovak (she was first generation Slovak-American). The song goes through the record like a leitmotif, though highly abstracted for the most part. I’m finally going to finish the damn thing this year, I’m close. It’s a very personal record that deals with family stuff among other things (I like this tension between abstract musique concrete and intimate content). Anyways, I recorded a bunch of metallic percussion for this record some years ago, you can hear it in the chime piece “Bellmaker’s Bluff” from FFR that I put in my Resonance FM mix for SHAPE (that piece itself is a tribute to Boriska from the third act of Andrei Rublev). I played around with that metalophone material (vibes, chimes, among other things) a ton over the past years, live and in other contexts. In assembling FFR, I had a lot of good left-over material featuring these instruments. So honestly Ballad started as an “odds and sods” record that coalesced around that working title, Like Heavy Honey from the Hollow Comb. I had all this nice swarm-like, insectoid/avian material. I did a first run at it and it was way too dense, didn’t breathe. So I decided to combine it with another release I was working on that was more immersive micro-sound environments and droney elements.

When I started to graft those together and rework the material I decided to add a third layer of domestic field recordings, which were not originally intended for musical use, warts and all, from family events both heavy and casual. Lastly, I added a piece that draws on my ad-hoc installations in nature, done in a couple hours stolen from family vacation, camping on the outskirts of Berlin, where I snuck away to do my thing on the lakeshore. So Vagabond Laws, Ballad and the “gramma record” are a triptych of sorts. I’m happy that I somehow managed to come full circle and make my own abstract music that can include improvising on percussion instruments for the pure pleasure of it. I feel like I captured the themes, imagery and movement of the poem in an open way. I don’t know what Hugo would say. He was really young when he wrote it and I connected with it at about the same age. I am very curious how it will be received.

You mentioned you were looking after your son during the lockdown as school and nurseries shut down. How did that go? How difficult is it to combine the profession of an artist with family?

I don’t see music as my profession. I hardly make any money from music, and I reinvest far more than I make on it. I have kind of resisted professionalization. I don’t have a music career. Many of my music heroes were/are not what you would call career or professional musicians, but they are often “lifers”. I guess I aspire to be a lifer. Just to be clear, I have huge respect and admiration for people who are able to make their living through their art (or adjacent activities), it just hasn’t been my path.

That means I have always had another job or other jobs. These days I earn my living as a translator, proudly in the cultural sector. So it’s more just how to balance family, work and a serious, sustained art practice. I always wanted to know how people managed to do this, like “yeah, got it, sonification yadda yadda, but how do you find time or make enough money to do your thing!?” And now I don’t know if I have any tips because it is so individual! It is difficult. I am fortunate that being a current homebody dovetails with what I most want to do in music right now: finish making a bunch of records. What makes it difficult on the whole is the commitment to really showing up as a partner. Really carrying my side of the deal. That’s what we’ve done these past three years. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my son and decided not to pursue certain things for a while in order to be around, but honestly that increasingly fit with what I wanted to do anyways. My partner is in the film festival business so she is on the road up to a month a year these days (or pre-Covid at least). We don’t have any back-up, no grandparents here or other family, we’ve had like two date nights in three years. I try to get out to play outside of Berlin for a week to ten days a year if possible. I’d like to ramp that up a bit, and some day, if not perhaps already, that can be a family affair. Otherwise, I have spent a lot of time and energy over the years trying to design and develop my practice in such a way that I can do meaningful work no matter how much time I have. Some of my best stuff was recorded while taking brief breaks from work in my home office/studio. I’ll dub tapes or archive and document recordings while doing admin stuff. There are however extended peak work periods where I can’t manage to get to finish a record between work and parenting. I used to laugh when people were like “I paint in my head”, but I have really learned to work effectively in my head even when I have zero time, to work out questions related to how to approach specific records or conceptual or technical things. I can often sustain quite a bit of energy over these periods, even though it is a constant source of inner friction. That energy can go sour at some point, it’s hard to guard against that. The hardest thing in this respect is finishing records that are pretty far along in the process. I need uninterrupted, focused time and peace and quiet to do that. So sometimes I just have to wait, maybe even half a year, till I can strike. The trick is doing all kinds of other stuff to push the work along in that time. I am lucky to have support in all of this at home.

The little dude, what can I say? He and I are lucky, in that he is in a kind of sweet spot age-wise for this kind of situation. He is totally oblivious to the wider context and too young to suffer much if at all from the absence of the normal amount of social contact, and old enough to be able to actively join in shaping his day and following his interests with our help. He would prefer to spend all day playing with mama and papa anyways. And fortunately we have been able to organize things to be able to do that. He’s finally started replying to me in English consistently or frequently over the past month or so and that has been wonderful of course. He was ripe for it and this even more intense 24/7 contact probably didn’t hurt. It’s funny, but though I speak fluent German my brain still processed all his talking before as “yeah, yeah, fake language, not really happening” on some level.

He has a really vivid imagination. He is obsessed with diving. He raps unintelligibly at other (bewildered) kids on the playground. Interactions with other kids are frequently the highlight of my day, they really restore my faith in humanity (we have practiced pretty strict social distancing but decided to use very lightly frequented playgrounds after the playground ban was lifted).

Frankly, it is fascinating and inspiring to be able to witness a kid at play up close over the duration. The absorption, synthesis, interests, obsessions, influences, variations, mutations, world building. I feel that is essentially all that artists do when it comes down to it, however much we like to pretend otherwise or pile words on top of it for respectability’s sake. Rrill Bell, like Wu-Tang, is for the children.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova and Jim Campbell
Photo: Dagny Kleber

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