Interviews Masada Marathon

We almost felt protected by how different it was – Cleric talks Zorn, Chokhma and The Book Beriah

Photo credit Nick Shellenberger

On August 24, the highly anticipated Masada Book 3: The Book Beriah was finally released through PledgeMusic, closing the last chapter in the project’s 25 year history. Featuring 92 new composition by groundbreaking New York-based composer, John Zorn, the collection is made up of eleven albums, involving some of the most daring and distinguished musicians in the industry today.

The Music and Myth’s Masada Marathon continues with its first post-release article, an interview featuring guitarist Matt Hollenberg and bassist Daniel Ephraim Kennedy of Cleric. With Chokhma, a forceful and extremely cohesive album, the avant-metal band (with Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals and Larry Kwartowitz on drums and percussion) made a thunderous statement in its Masada debut.

I caught up with Matt and Dan a while ago to discuss their involvement in Masada, the creative process behind Chokhma and their thoughts on being part of a musical venture with such a deep history.

Let’s talk a bit about how you got involved in Masada.  

Matt: The first contact with Zorn was all the way back in 2009. Trevor Dunn used to have this band called MadLove who came through Philly at one point that year and needed a bass amp to use. I knew the promoter at the time, so I ended up driving the bass cab to the gig. After their set I introduced myself and handed him a copy of the Cleric song “Rush of Blood”. For a few weeks we didn’t hear back from him, so naturally I assumed he didn’t like it or something. After about three weeks, we got a Myspace PM from Trevor about the track where he called us “crazy lunatic bastards”, and said he would show it to Zorn. When he gave it to Zorn, Zorn flipped over it. “Regressions” came out in 2010 on Web of Mimicry and Zorn sent us a really nice e-mail about it. He appreciated it. Then, we didn’t really meet him for like three years or so.

Larry would meet him face to face in spring of 2013 at a Moonchild show and introduced himself as the drummer of Cleric. Normally Zorn hates talking to fans, but in this case he stopped getting into his cab, and ran over to Larry to enthusiastically talk about the band for 20 minutes or so. It was then that we realized that he was big fan and not a just casual supportive listener. He eventually invited us to present a track at the live debut of Masada Book Three, the Town Hall concert in 2014 after seeing us perform for the first time in November of 2013. Zorn was thrilled with the arrangement we made for “Imma”, so he offered us a full record right after that particular concert.

A few months later, he asked me to do Simulacrum (Organ Trio with John Medeski and Kenny Grohowski), so the relationship just got better over time. We’re very grateful.

How would you say the music of Cleric fits into the Masada aesthetic? What’s the common thread that unites Masada with what you do?

Matt: There’s some math-y elements to it; undeniably. So already there, there’s a similarity.

Dan: The ideas that Zorn gives to musicians are so simple, even though they’re complicate melodies. He has a kind of rule that you have to set the idea the way he wrote it just once in the tune, but then you can develop from there. Sometimes, he would suggest ideas to us. Like, in “Imma”, we did it backwards. We experimented with lengthening.

Matt: There were a couple of arrangements we made where we did his thing in the middle or something and we kind of made our own weird intro. Because if you just write what he wrote down, there’s maybe thirty seconds to a minute, tops. And you have to make it a song. So that’s the thing, it led us to places that we wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

After you presented him the music, did Zorn accept it as it was or did he make changes to it?

Matt: Totally loved it, yeah. He was thrilled with it.

Dan: I’m sure that he really did like it but, also, part of it is the way that we work. It’s hard to tinker with what we do, from the outside. Once we have something, we go through a lot to get it, you know? I think he might have thought that it’s kind of hard to ask us to change things, compared to other bands, maybe.

Matt: But I do know there was another band in this group that changed the key. He made them re-record. I had another friend who tried to get in on the Masada thing. He just sent him his arrangements and he changed all the time signatures and the grooves. You can’t do that.

I know he offers freedom to the musicians, but there are certain aspects that need to be kept exactly the same in order to make it a Masada tune.

Matt: Exactly! I guess it’s more about tempo and aesthetic than it is about, like, “Oh, let’s change his notes completely” (laughs). Because they’re perfect! You don’t need to change them.

Were you well acquainted with his music before you got on board?

Matt: Yeah, I was a fan since 04. That was when I kind of discovered everything. I mean, I’m a younger guy, I was born in the ‘80s so…

I guess the first record that really got me into him was The Circle Maker. That was a life-changing experience. Getting into that album and just realizing how deep all those guys were and how there was this real music going on.

I loved his stuff for years before working with him. So, he doesn’t have to explain to me what his music is about, do you know what I mean?

Dan: I saw his name on the Mr. Bungle album as a producer. Then, I liked Fantomas and somebody said that Fantomas was ripping off Naked City a little bit. So I listened to Naked City. I still have a lot of catching up to do.

Matt: Yeah, there’s so much. It’s insane. I mean, very few people listen to all of them.

Dan: (laughs) You can listen to them all, but it takes a bit of time and you can’t really focus on all of them.

What are some of your favorite Masada records? 

Matt:  I really like Lucifer, you know? I really love Xaphan, obviously. I just love the way Trey produces that stuff. It’s so great. I love Brian Marsella’s record, Buer. Mary Halvorson’s record is great. I love Medeski, Martin & Wood’s a lot. I haven’t heard a bad one (laughs).

Could you walk me through the creative process of recording Chokhma? How did it differ from Retrocausal?

Matt: It was much more like jazz and less like nitpicking every sound of every song. It was like an overtly jazz album. We were trying to really embrace that aspect and explore that more. I think, concept-wise, we also wanted more of a lush and warm experience sonically speaking. Retrocausal is very confrontational and difficult. By design. It’s supposed to be difficult for people. But Chokhma is almost supposed to be accessible, like, you can put it on and it’s nice, it sounds warm (relative to other Cleric).

Dan: It’s more accessible than anything on Retrocausal, probably. Everything is really different about the process too. First of all, we had to go work on this stuff and get it done. I think we probably did it faster than Retrocausal. A lot of Retrocausal was recorded and overdubbed at home sometimes, before it was brought into the studio. It’s a different studio than we normally use, so everything was different about it.

Matt: Yeah, because it was recorded at Bill Laswell’s studio. They have all of this obvious… like… the bass is central. It’s very bass-heavy record. The bass is pushed to the front and the guitar pushed back a little bit more.

I don’t think I’ve often heard someone say, “Yeah, I recorded a Zorn record… it was warmer and more accessible than what I usually release.”

Matt: (laughs) In all fairness, Masada is almost like folk music. It’s so beautiful. You can play it for most people. I’ve never put a Masada record for anybody and have them not be enchanted, you know?

Dan: It’s not Torture Garden. (laughs)

It’s funny that you made the folk song reference. Jon Madof said the exact same thing. There is this history and this texture that basically is the modern Jewish music that Zorn wanted to create. Did you ever feel pressured by the historical depth of this project?

Matt: Yeah, are you kidding? Yeah! I mean, Trey Spruance is making another one and, like, Sofia Rei and Craig Taborn. Oh my God! What’s nice about all of them is that everyone is coming from a different place. It’s hard to say, “This one’s better or worse.” They’re all different styles. They are built differently. But they’re fundamentally the same, underneath it all.

Dan: We can’t compete with that stuff. Those guys are so much more experienced making that type of music and working with Zorn than we are. We almost felt protected by how different it was.


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