Richard Franecki, an Art graduate who has lived in Wisconsin all his life, is the man behind the extended psychedelic improvisations of Vocokesh. Franecki, who has never aimed at stardom and contents himself with self-made recordings of the highest caliber, has nonetheless built a faithful following nationwide and the new album Paradise Revisited (Drag City, 1998) is likely to introduce him to an even broader audience.
How did your passion for electronic music get started?
"I was mainly influenced by the industrial electronic noise that British bands like Throbbing Gristle were churning out in the early Eighties. The main difference between us and them was that a lot of the industrial bands came with this grotesque imagery that we really did not identify with. Actually, that is also the main reason why we lost interest in that scene. We were never really interested in it, we were into the sound for the sound's sake. The image projected by that scene led us to losing interest in the genre. We dind't feel anything in common with them. So we decided to focus on the music we liked to do, and we became F/I, a loosely-structured ensemble that made about 7/8 albums. Industrial music was mainly a British phenomenon, but we were never completely isolated. As a matter of fact, there were some other local bands that were doing the same kind of thing, as well as communities of avantgarde rock musicians in Chicago. Actually, a lot of bands in the midwestern United States tried to incorporate electronic instruments and move beyond the conventional rock format. As a footnote, I should mention that, while I left them in 1991, F/I are still together and keep making albums."
What was your role in F/I and how did their sound evolve?
"The band was not playing in the industrial vein all the time. In the mid Eighties we added a drummer and took a more rock-oriented direction. Harsh electronics were still a part of the sound, and Hawkwind and Pink Floyd had been influeces all along, but they were drowned in special effects during the industrial period. A drummer brought a new sense of structure. We turned to playing loose rock songs that sounded a lot like Hawkwind, i.e. long jam sessions, or like early Pink Floyd, i.e. non-linear more abstract psychedelic trips. I was playing bass and guitar and electronics. The other members were also switching from one instrument to the other. There was a floating membership of 15 people, with different line-ups on each record. People would come and go all the time. F/I had a lot of members but not everybody was in the group at the same time."
Why did you leave them, if you still have such a good rapport with them?
"Usual reasons, I guess: disagreement over the musical direction and conflicts among band members. The group wanted to become more of a song-oriented band, I wanted to stay in the more very loosely structured improvisational structure. There were also other reasons. For example, F/I started to tour, they went to Europe twice and were very enthusiastic about touring. I was more into wortking in the studio, I really don't like going on the road. I started Vocokesh as a side-projekt while I still was in F/I. It's curious to notice that today F/I is still making music in the same direction as we are. We sort of followed parallel paths, that led us to a very similar sound. Vocokesh was actually formed with former members of F/I and the overlapping still continues. To me, initially, Vocokesh was what F/I should have been doing back at the time. Today, it is just my pet project."
It sounds like you haven't changed much since the beginning?
"Yes, I continued in the same direction, I just switched bands so that I could continue doing what I wanted to do. Things have not changed a great deal for me."
What do you remember of Ispepaibara (RRRecords, 1991), Vocokesh's first
"The title-track and central composition of the album is an F/I song that we wrote in 1983 and performed live several times. It's our typical loosely structured jam song, much akin to Hawkwind. The structure was loose enough that we never knew what direction the song would take us to. The album contains a couple of other pieces also from F/I and the rest is just spontaneous free-form improvisations. The album was done by a trio with the addition of a couple of friends, all members or friends of F/I."
What about the EP Still Standing In The Same Garden (Drag City, 1992)?
"Once again, the song is a funny take on a song that we used to do with F/I. The remainder of the EP is a free-form jam and an experiment which I did with tape collage. This was actually challenging. I wanted to replicate what electronic composers were doing in the Fifties, just recording a bunch of sounds and then playing tapes in a random pattern so that hopefully something interesting would happen."
Smile And Point At The Mountain (Drag City, 1995)?
"This is a collection of eight untitled songs. Basically, once again, it's done the same way we work on all songs. These are semi-structured improvisations with a dose of studio gimmicry. We went in our studio and recorded some very skeleton backing tracks. Then we spent severral months adding and substracting things on the tapes. We flashed out what we recorded live. The album is 50% live and 50% overdub. There are no titles because we thought the entire album was just one long composition, although we like the idea of listening to them in a random order. The individual pieces are like movements of a suite. They are ordered in a logical pattern, so that they seem to flow into one another without contrast. But I do like the idea of playing them randomly and bringing out the contrasts! The third track was actually done completely live and wasn't overdub. We thought that one sounded good enough to leave it as it was".
Paradise Revisited (Drag City, 1998) has been billed as your most
complex and mature work...
"We did an album with F/I called Paradise, and in a certain respect this album does explore some of the idea that were originally explored by F/I. Our technique has not changed, and I could repeat what I told you about the previous albums."
What is so fascinating about improvisation?
"Improvising music always carries the danger of overworking a piece. It's an art to know when to leave the song as it is and not mess it up. It's like working with a painting: you could go on forever, but you have to recognize when it's finished. It's actually very hard to do, it's very hard to do good imporovising music. It is gratifying that people like our music, but I must admit that we record a lot of junk too. We have to sort out what is worth saving. And sometimes it's very little. I guess improvising comes with the fun and the challenge of envisioning in your mind what you'd like to do and then see if it comes true."
So songs are born by just playing them?
"Yes, we get together in a studio and sit around and talk about what we would like to do. Then we just play. A lot of the basic tracks that we actually put down on tape happened spontaneously. Eventually something really interesting starts to happen and hopefully when it happens the tape is rolling. This album was born out of 120 minutes of stuff that we recorded: we left just about half of what we had."
I detect ethnic influences on many of your tracks...
"Personally, I am a big fan of indian music and middleastern music. I don't claim to understand it a lot, but I do enjoy listening to it. A lot of the eastern scales fit well in a rock mode. I also have a small collcetions of instruments from other countries that I enjoy playing on our records, although I think you ahve to be careful because it can be overdone. Assimilating another cultural influence is always very interesting.
Your songs often start very abstract and then end very rock: is that intentional?
"On this album it happens more than usually. With our technique, you never really know what you'll come up with. You'd be surprised to hear some of the original tracks. The two songs Quest and Brief, for example, are very much studio pieces. The backing tracks for them were very basic. We recorded them shortly after Smile and I hadn't listened to them for a couple of years. Then I rediscovered them and I thought that there was some potential."
Why is psychedelic rock so popular? How do you explain its longevity in a
music world that is built on continuous renewal?
"Genres come and go. Rock music is not different than any other pop culture: people always want something different. I don't know why psychedelic rock has been the exception, although it also had its high and low points. We Vocokesh play the music we play because we don't this for a living and therefore we can afford more freedom. We are very grateful that we have been able to carve out a niche for us, that we have a record label, and that fans buy our albums. But we are not trying to make it into the mainstream world, we can do whatever we want, we don't have to worry about what is viable, we can completely indulge ourself in what we like. We are glad that people are and have been interested in it. Psychedelic rock has been here for 30 years. Currently it has experienced yet another revival, but it has always been there although not always a trendy thing. The only factor to explain its longevity maybe its that psychedelic rock allows the musician to explore the music much more than, say, a pop song. You can play with the theme you have chosen and see what you can come up with. It's also one of the reasons that got me interested in indian music in the first place: indian music has your basic scale but then the musicians will improvise over that, and build on that, while staying withing the structure, and the piece can last a long time. That's a bit like psychedelic rock."
What do you like of the current musical scene?
"To be honest, I don't pay a lot of attention to it. I heard of a band, but I haven't heard any of the music. I don't listening to the radio very much. I listen to the oldies. I'm kind of out of it when it comes to current rock. I do listen to some jazz, I can't say a lot. Jazz also has that improvisational aspect. But then a jazz musician wouldn't appreciate being compared to a rock musician..."
What is it that you don't like?
"I can't stand dance music, I don't find any value in hip hop. It never struck a chord, as far as I'm concerned."