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RVNG Intl.'s Series Teams Up Renowned Musicians With Up-and-Comers for Unexpected Collaborations

Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper Top Image
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There’s an arresting aspect of every frame of Champ Ensminger’s video for “Pony Blues,” the song by Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper. The rich greens of the jungle leaves, the smoke wafting through the hills, the boy picking his way through the forest, his yellow shirt playing against the brown of the tree trunks as he follows an enchanting spirit into the river.

But it’s the juxtaposition of these visuals against the music itself that brings out the film’s dualistic nature — namely, the interplay of the song Gunn and Cooper perform (a Delta blues written in Mississippi a century ago) and the setting of the video (outside Pai, Thailand, a rural town just across the border from Myanmar). 

It’s these kinds of clever juxtapositions that drive the indie record label RVNG Intl’s "FRKWYS" series, of which Gunn and Cooper’s recording is a part. The 12 records in the label’s "FRKWYS" series pair a younger musical traveler with a more experienced one, meetings that also often span geography and aesthetic. And the best of these records are often the most improbable — like the blues of the American South weaving perfectly the greens of the Thai north. “I think there is incredible potential between the intergenerational exchange where there’s a mutuality in learning,” says Matt Werth. "And that becomes the thrust of these collaborations."

“I think there is incredible potential between the intergenerational exchange where there’s a mutuality in learning.”

Werth founded RVNG in 2004 and runs the label out of an office in Brooklyn. In 2009, he started the "FRKWYS" series — pronounced “Freakways,” an homage to the legendary Folkways label. The first release paired noise pioneers Carter Tutti and Australian polymath J.G. Thirlwell; later releases upheld that collaborative spirit while expanding the project’s boundaries. One such example is the 2011 edition that paired New Age zither master Laraaji and noise jammers Blues Control. Werth masterminds the collaborations himself.

While all of the collaborations are successful, some, particularly the recent ones, are spectacular. And in recent years, starting with the 2012 "FRKWYS" release ICON GIVE THANK featuring Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, and the Congos, the series has added a video element. This includes music videos and full-fledged documentaries soaked in the vibes of the music.

“[Video] was an opportunity to jump off the page, to smash the format and expand it,” Werth says. “It felt really important [for 'ICON GIVE THANK'] that we had that strong documentation, even though it became abstract in the end. It felt like it would be, without aggrandizing it, a missed historical moment [without it]."

Below, Werth joins us as we explore some of the visual and musical ground "FRKWYS" has explored so far. 

Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper Image
Still from Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper's "Pony Blues" video. 

Steve Gunn & Mike Cooper - "Pony Blues" [Official Video]
"FRKWYS" ​ Vol. 11: "Cantos de Lisboa"

Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper’s "FRKWYS" collaboration, “Cantos de Lisboa,” sees the two guitar players meeting on unfamiliar ground, with each (the Rome-based Cooper and Philadelphia-based Gunn) decamping to Lisbon, Portugal for the sessions. On the album’s more experimental tracks, Cooper, a seasoned genre-hopper, pulls the capable Gunn into strange, new territory. Particularly rewarding are murky, noisy exercises like “Lampdusa 2013” and “Song for Charlie,” as well as the pair’s mellower, fado-influenced “Saudade Do Santos-o-Veiho."

“[‘Cantos de Lisboa’ is] two really virtuosic players taking the geography in Portugal and the music of Lisbon and playing to those sensibilities, and playing to their dexterity,” Werth says.

Unlike most of the RVNG videos, Ensminger’s video for “Pony Blues” doesn’t document the recording of the song or even feature either of the artists. But it does capture the hesitating, roiling nature of the record.

Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - "Sunergy" [Documentary]
"FRKWYS" Vol. 13: "Sunergy"

In his documentary of the “Sunergy” sessions, Sean Hellfritsch combines shots of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani making music together at a table with images from the Northern California coast. Both scenes — of the musicians interlocking; of waves shimmering or beating against the rocks — convey the feeling of nerves untangling and the sense of life teeming below the surface.

The two electronic musicians both use vintage Buchla modular synthesizers, which they spread across the table, turning knobs and stretching cables. Ciani, a noted sound designer in addition to her New Age credentials, is the seasoned master; Smith has been earning her own acclaim lately with the release of her album “EARS.”

The record is filled with the sounds of waves crashing — all fabricated by the Buchla machines. "I wanted to write [a piece evoking] the sunrise, it’s such a magnificent event here,” Ciani said recently. "I felt like that’s what we were doing. We were writing the sunrise and that energy."

David Van Tieghem x Ten - "Fits & Starts" [Mini Doc]
"FRKWYS" Vol. 10: “Fits & Starts”

“Fits & Starts” is the widest deviation from the main thrust of the "FRKWYS" series. To start, percussionist David Van Tiegham – a member of the ‘70s New York avant garde and collaborator with Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, and David Byrne — was recorded improvising at a New York gallery, drumming over found materials that ranged from firecrackers to empty cans of coconut water. Ten artists contributed the materials; later, those ten artists (including the likes of Helado Negro, Diamond Terrifier, and Georgia) cut up and remixed Van Tieghem’s performance. Van Tiegham, finally, assembled those pieces back together into the finished album.

Unlike other "FRKWYS" projects, “Fits & Starts” is less about dialogue between two artists and more about process, dissolving Van Tiegham’s agency and building it back up within the environment of the album. On the occasions when Van Tiegham’s rhythms slip fully back into focus, the narrowness of our own basic concepts of creatorship become more stark. 

"That [record] is an homage to the New York avant garde,” says Werth. "Being able to go to a group of New York musicians to work in a very disembodied way with David — the concept felt nestled right into the oddity of the avant garde that has historically been present here,” he said. The “mini doc” that accompanies the record, directed by Jordan Kinley, follows Van Tiegham’s hands as he sweeps over the objects, creating a symphony of rhythm.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma - "Strange Dreams" [Official Video]
"FRKWYS" Vol. 12: "We Know Each Other Somehow"

Of all the albums in the "FRKWYS" series, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma’s entry, “We Know Each Other Somehow” is perhaps the most blissful. “When I think of that album, I think of Ariel and Robert hugging,” Werth says. "The image of them after everything is done, this exchange of love and appreciation. When I hear the music, I hear joy."

Misha Hollenbach and Joey Rashid directed the video for “Strange Dreams,” which is excerpted from their full-length documentary “Sunshine Soup.” The film is like a remembered dream — vague, grainy Super 8 footage tamps down everything but the silhouettes of Lowe and Kalma, and the brightness of the sun over Kalma’s home in rural New South Wales, Australia.

While the music itself can be lighter than air, it’s not all immediately intuitive — in fact, the duo of Lowe and Kalma draw energetic, unexpected music decisions from one another. The extended piece “Miracle Mile” sees both composers laying out their tools and plucking from them at will: field recordings of the forest, churning synths, Kalma’s ethereal sax, and Lowe’s vocals approximating a kind of teeming life.

Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, The Congos - "ICON EYE"
"FRKWYS" Vol. 9: "Icon Give Thank"

This collaboration between two L.A. psych wanderers and one of the most legendary Jamaican vocal groups of all time isn’t just the unlikeliest collaboration in the "FRKWYS" catalog — it’s some of the unlikeliest music you’ll ever hear. RVNG flew Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras to Jamaica to work with the Congos with the hope that the musicians would find common musical ground. As they worked insistently toward it, the musicians developed a distorted, genre-less melange of sound grounded in the harmony and spirituality of the Congos and lifted by the lysergic elasticity of Sun Araw.

Filmmaker Tony Lowe captured the affair, turning it into the abstract, visceral documentary “ICON EYE,” which includes the details of the journey toward mutual understanding. 

Werth also accompanied the musicians to Jamaica, and he remembers the trip in those terms. "There was a huge learning curve to that one because of, to be totally frank, the cultural divide,” he recalls. "I hear that learning process in the music. It’s not without flaws, it’s not without its own dissipation of language. That’s what I hear, and that’s a wonderful thing to hear." 

Top image: A still from Champ Ensminger’s video for “Pony Blues.” RVNG Intl

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