Live drone music isn’t just for yoga – at WorkSong Chinese Medicine, you can hear David First perform while needles are stuck in you. And you should, because the Greenpointer has been a part of almost every underground musical movement in New York in the last four decades — from playing with Cecil Taylor to seeing Thurston Moore rerelease his influential avant-punk band The Notekillers in 2004. Now, Greenpoint-based DAIS has released Electronic Works 1976-1977, featuring First’s mid-70s modular synth experiments.
We spoke to First about his years in New York City, exploring multiple genres of music, and what lead to DAIS bring his electronic music out of the vault.
How did you get involved with drone acupuncture?
I was having some chronic physical problems and sought out help in the neighborhood here in Greenpoint when I found a place called WorkSong Chinese Medicine that offered sliding-scale acupuncture. So, I started going there and along with getting some relief, I noticed that Isobeau Trybula, the head of the center always played very cool music – African guitar/Bulgarian Women’s Choir/Baroque classical music/Indian vocalists/etc. — not the “health oriented” new age treacle I was used to experiencing at various massage/acupuncture/chiropractor offices I had been to over the years.
After a few visits I gave her one of my CDs just to give her an idea of what I did. Then, the next time I came in, I was mildly shocked to hear the CD, which was pretty strong stuff, playing while people were receiving treatments! It was actually a little unnerving at first — at WorkSong, everyone treated is in the same room and I kept waiting for someone to jump up screaming. But it didn’t happen. So I started thinking about creating a CD specifically for Isobeau to play and that idea evolved into just performing it live as a special monthly event. That was over three years ago and it’s been an amazing experience. For which I give all credit to Isobeau — she placed her clients in my hands and trusted that they would dig it.
Well, I’d say that the cultural difference between Philly and New York is not nearly as stark as when I was coming up, but back then it was really clear that NYC was where you had to be to get to play the right music, meet the right people and get any kind of attention from the public and the world at large. As a teen I used to come up with friends and see shows in Ornette Coleman’s Spring Street loft, or Don Cherry conducting a large ensemble at NYU’s student center, an early version of Terry Riley’s “In C” in the Village.
My own first New York performance experience was in 1974, as part of a large ensemble Cecil Taylor formed to play a concert at Carnegie Hall. I was surrounded by my free jazz heroes and I knew I wanted to get back here full-time eventually. It took me a few years as I ended up sticking around Philadelphia and trying to make a go of it locally with my band Notekillers, but eventually in the early 80’s — after we broke up — I moved to the New Brunswick area with my girlfriend at the time and her two kids. I finally made it up to NYC a couple of years later.
My first living situation was at the Jane West Hotel in the West Village. I guess you’d call it a transient hotel. You paid by the week ($75) and the bathroom’s down the hall. The rooms were slightly bigger than the bed and the doors and locks were the kind you find on a typical closet. I used to lock my guitar case to my bed frame. As you can probably imagine, the place was filled with a lot of pretty “colorful” characters, many of whom had been there for years and called it home. But I met some very cool people during my six months there.
I was working a minimum wage day job at a cookie store in City Corp Plaza — I don’t have the largest skill-set beyond music, and eating cookies and cup-a-soups three meals a deal. I finally saved up enough money to get a real place — a five-flight walkup, 1,000-square-foot loft on Canal Street, near West Broadway — and at that point, I was rejoined by my girlfriend and the kids. That was when Soho still had some awesomeness left. It was the height of the tagging and postering era and you could see the most amazing stuff all over all the walls of buildings walking down any street. Plus, the whole neighborhood was like a daily flea market—everywhere there were blankets with books/records/clothes/electronic junk of every kind. It was heaven.
I didn’t get heavily involved in the NY downtown scene until about 1985. Notekillers came up and played some established venues: Hurrah, CBGB, Maxwells, and more before we stopped in early 1981. But I’d say I missed the real DIY scene that happened in a big way soon after that. The coolest DIY places I do remember playing later in the ‘80s were the Gas Station, Gargoyle Mechanique, Gen Ken’s Generator, and Amica Bunker.
The DIY scene in Brooklyn and Queens is pretty fantastic, I’d say, although, that is mostly the perspective of an older outsider. It just seems like no matter what the obstacles, kids are still starting and running new spaces all the time. It’s like a game of real estate whack-a-mole. Every time a landlord or neighborhood prices them out, they pop up somewhere else and the art party continues. I love the energy and there’s some real creativity going on as well. It’s great to see, and be able to participate in.
For the younger kids moving here, I really don’t know how they do it. It’s hard to see how it doesn’t have some deleterious effect to have to work two jobs and then do one’s art. But there are some very creative composers, performers, bands, and visual artists still getting it done. They live in bunches in places and situations that I might not want to live in at this point in my life, but they seem indefatigable. I’ve seen the cycle of cheap and funky to gentrified and expensive happen over and over again in my time here. The sad/funny thing is that Bushwick — where so much is happening now — is already expensive even though it’s still pretty raw. I guess the landlords are onto the drill and aren’t bothering to wait this time till things get fixed up.
Well, it’s kind of the best of both worlds, I suppose. It’s pretty nice here. Still pretty quiet. And, so far, it has managed to retain a bit of its original mom and pop charm, even while the restaurants and chains move in. But it’s still close enough to all the places I need to go, whether it’s the other North Brooklyn neighborhoods, or the LES. I think its time has passed, or maybe it never totally came. There are some venues here, but not like Williamsburg was, or what Bushwick/Ridgewood is. People are still scared of dealing with the G train, perhaps..
You’ve been steeped in so many genres and styles, from punk to early laptop compositions — do you feel that music being more accessible now has bred a larger appreciation for things that once went under the radar and do you feel an affinity for any one sect of music?
I think my generation was probably the first to fully embrace music from all over the world. We listened to all the rock and pop stuff, of course, but through easy access to recordings, the curious among us were able to hear music from India/Bali/Africa/South America/etc., as well as all the local folk, blues and jazz forms. And it was such a short leap from psychedelic rock to avant electronic composers and all the free jazz explorers, and minimalists. So, for me, it seemed part of my birthright to be into, and to want to work in, various forms, as well to try to hybridize a lot of these things into something new. But our easy access is, of course, nothing compared to today’s. We had to know where to search out any arcane, underground information — what periodicals to trust, which record store person to listen to.
There’s still that today, but so much now is available at the click of a mouse. One major thing that I see is that people, kids, today are way more knowledgeable about so much stuff from back in the day that was totally under my radar. They’ve done an amazing job of filling in the cracks and reassessing a lot of artists that were perhaps under-appreciated at the time. I think that’s great. I can totally understand their desire to find their own heroes from then, instead of just accepting the received canon that they are probably sick of being hit over the hit with. The other thing is I find that today’s music aficionados are not as stuck in defending cultural wars turf as we often were. It seems like even the average listener has no problem drawing upon the entire spectrum of sound from every era. It’s all one huge playlist. As I said, we may have begun that open exploration, but these kids are swimming in it in a way that I think is just second nature. It’s not even an issue.
One of the two heads of DAIS, Ryan Martin, is my guitar student. And I knew he was deeply involved in modular/analog synthesis because I’d gone to see his band at the time, De Trop, which was largely based around that. So, just in passing, without any thought of anything coming of it, I mentioned that I had had my own analog synth experience. That I had taken a course in electronic music at Princeton and that the teacher liking what I was doing, arranged for me to have continued access to the equipment, which mainly consisted of a Buchla 100 modular synth system. When Ryan heard all this, his jaw dropped. He immediately asked if I had any tapes and I pointed to a huge crate of reel-to-reels in one corner of my studio, and said, “Yeah, somewhere in there.”
I had no idea how much I had, what condition the tapes would be in after all these years of carting them around NYC, or whether the stuff would actually be any good. But he said that we have to digitize them and put it out! Luckily, the tapes were ok, and we just picked an album’s worth to release. I’ve had some crazy things happen before, as when, out of the blue — and, again, decades after the fact — Thurston Moore name-checked Notekillers in a magazine article, which led to him putting out a bunch of other tapes from my crate on his Ecstatic Peace label, and even our eventual reforming. But the DAIS thing is, in a way, even crazier, because my band was, at least, attempting to make something happen. The Buchla stuff was pretty much just for my own amusement.