Interviews Masada Marathon

The process was to listen to all the music – Klezmerson’s Benjamin Shwartz talks Masada, The Book Beriah, creative freedom and working on Tiferet

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Photo credit: Oscar Buitron

This week’s edition of the Masada Marathon features an interview with violist, pianist and composer Benjamin Shwartz of Klezmerson, one of the few projects chosen by John Zorn to be on both The Book of Angels and The Book Beriah. I caught up with Benjamin earlier this week to discuss his band, his work on Amon and Tiferet, creative freedom, breakfast with Zorn, Mexican guitar players and why he feels Klezmerson is a very bad band name.

Please tell me a bit about Klezmerson. What was your vision for this project and how does it relate to Masada?

The funny thing is, I started Klezmerson 15 years ago because I’d heard a lot of Tzadik records and I am a big fan of Zorn’s music. When I heard the first Masada thing, I was blown away. I was like, “Oh, shit! I have to do this! I need to do something with this!” I felt completely enchanted with this music. So I just made an exercise; I made a record.

I write a lot of music for films and TV here in Mexico. Sometimes, I do things that I don’t like so much. So I said, “Fuck it! I’m just going to go and do one record the way I want it to be.” I just did it. I put it in a drawer and never took it out. Then, I don’t know why, I sent it to Zorn by mail. I saw the address of Tzadik, in New York, so I sent it to him. He replied. He was like, “Thank you very much. Why did you sent me the record?” (laughs) I said, “Because I’m a very big fan.” And that was it.

After a few years,  I did another record, but I didn’t send it to him. I just made another record and the band started playing and it was growing here in Mexico. Then, Cyro Baptista came to Mexico to play and we went to see him. I gave him my first record, we talked and became friends. So what he did is he took this record and gave it to Zorn again. Zorn got it from two different sides. (laughs)

Zorn came to play here in Mexico with Moonchild, I think. I’m not sure. Anyway, he called me and said, “I want to have breakfast with you.” He wanted to talk to me. He said, “I have a crazy idea: what do you think of making one of the Book of Angels?” I was extremely excited and overwhelmed. Before that, I’d released another record of my music on Tzadik. It was Siete. Zorn liked it, and that’s why he decided to do one of the Book of Angels.

I really like the Amon record. It was very tough, very hard work. He decided to give The Book Beriah to the bands that he liked the most, that did the work he thought was the best from The Book of Angels. And he called again. (laughs)

Could you describe the creative process behind Amon and Tiferet. How did your approach differ in making the two records? 

Working on Amon was like working in the dark for me, a little bit. It was the first time I had music from him and I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to start working with it. I knew that I wanted to make something I liked. The music that I like is, obviously, rock, jazz and everything, but traditional Mexican music has a raw quality to it. I wanted to put that in the music.

What I did for Amon is I started listening to all of the Book of Angels albums. I wanted to see where the melody was. Because he sends – I don’t know if they told you – he sends just a little bit of… sometimes it’s more specific, but he sends just a melodic line or sometimes the harmony. The process was to listen to all the music, see what everybody had done before and try do something different, something original. I didn’t want to try to compete with all these monsters that play amazing super virtuoso things. (laughs) I just wanted to do something really original. So it took a while.

Zorn didn’t ask me how I was doing or send me something. I was like, “Do you want to participate? Can I send you something?” He said, “No, no, no. I trust you. When you finish it, when it’s mixed, send it to me.” It was tough, because you don’t know if you’re doing shit or making something good. I thought, “Oh, no! I’m blowing this opportunity.” (laughs)

The difference between this one and Tiferet was that, with the latter, I already knew what I had to do. I had done the other one. I didn’t want to do the same thing. I knew I wanted it to be different. For me, it’s a very different band. It sounds completely different. I thought I had to do something different, but I was scared, because people liked Amon a lot. I felt that, if I made something too different, it could be a disappointment.

Then, we played in Mexico with Abraxas and Secret Chiefs 3 and that concert blew my mind. Playing with these guys was like being reborn. I threw the insecurity away and decided I’ll do whatever I want to.

Playing with them inspired you to crank up Tiferet

Yes. I thought I had to make it a little bit more raw, a little bit harder.

I picked up on that. It does feel that way, compared to Amon

It was because of that concert. (laughs) I did another version of Tiferet before the one that was released. The difference with this one, as opposed to Amon, was that I had a lot of feedback from Zorn. It was like, “Okay, I like it, but why did you do this, why did you do that, you know?” In Amon, I had complete freedom. In this one, it was like, “No, you have to do exactly as it’s written! You have to do this and you have to do that.”

What I ended up doing was to completely remake the album, and it got a lot better. I traveled through Mexico, to the North, to Monterrey, and I recorded some accordions. I recorded different instruments. I gave it to Marc Urselli to mix. It sounds great.

A number of musicians have mentioned to me that Zorn was a lot more hands-on in The Book Beriah, compared to The Book of Angels. 

In my case, he said, “I really love what you’ve done, but you have to respect exactly the form of the music.” In the other one, he said, “Do what you want. I trust you.” And he didn’t mention that when I started working on Tiferet. So it was a shock to me, because I’d already finished the record. I had to rework it. He said, “You can edit and you can change parts of it.” I said, “No, I don’t like to do that.” So I re-imagined everything.

I understand why he asked for that. I understand that he wants to respect the form that he presents. He said, “You have to do better than Amon!”

Sam Eastmond of The Spike Orchestra mentioned to me that this was also the instruction he received. This record has to be better than the last one!

Zorn was very insistent about that. And that’s very difficult, because I’m always trying to do something different. I’m not competing with my other albums. I’m not competing with other things. It was like, “What do I do?”

I got very insecure. I’d always ask everybody, “Does this sound better to you than the other one?” Some of them said, “Hmmm, Amon is very good. I don’t know.” I was like, “Oh, shit! No, no, no! I fucked it up!” (laughs)

What are some of your favorite records in the Masada series?

Obviously the Secret Chiefs 3 record. I’m a big fan of Trey Spruance. I’m a huge fan! I like Lucifer. From the old ones: Het. That’s a record that marked my path. I mean, I’m not doing that music, but that was my first approach to Zorn’s music. In Beriah, I haven’t heard all of them. I heard Sofia’s, I heard Spike Orchestra’s, I heard Cleric’s. I just got them last week. (laughs) It’s truly something to be in that kind of company.

What does Masada mean to you on a personal level? What was it about Masada that attracted you in the first place?

The thing that talked to me is… well, obviously, I’m Jewish. I’m not religious. I’m not observant. It’s just something that’s inside of me and the music talks to me. The name of my band, Klezmerson, I think, is a really bad name. (laughs) I can’t change it. I would change it if I could.

Why?

It’s not klezmer at all – it never was. I don’t know, I called it like that fifteen years ago.

But with Masada, it’s something that’s like a new language for old music. It has jazz, but it’s away from jazz, a little bit. It has metal, but it’s not metal. It has free improvisation. It has the things that I like. I love the sound of all the records. I love it! I love the musicians that play there. That’s what talks to me.

I noticed that Tiferet has a great number of guest musicians. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Initially, I didn’t want that. I wanted to make a smaller ensemble. Then, when I started working… It happens all the time, to me. When I start working on Pro Tools and start listening , I think, “An accordion would be great here.” So I have to find a great accordionist. But I don’t want to have an accordionist in the band. I traveled to Monterrey and found this guy who is a great accordion player. Then, the guitar players. I wanted to make the guitar sound a little bit rougher, a little bit harsher. There are great guitar players in Mexico. I’m a fan of those guys. All of them are very active here in Mexico, so I wanted to play with them. I wanted to take a little bit of the personality of each guitarist.

I don’t know, it started with all these e-mails from Zorn. “You have to do it better, you have to…” (laughs) So, I was like, “Okay, I have to do more.” That’s why there are so many guests.

In the band, we’re six now. It sounds perfect with six musicians.

There are eight musicians credited as the main band on Tiferet.

The flutist left; Maria is not there. The sax player is replaced by Misha Marks. And then, one of the guests on the album, Tod Clouser, is now one of the guitar players in the band. Chatran (Gonzalez, percussion) is out also.

It’s hard for me to travel with that many musicians. It’s hard for me to rehearse with that many musicians. I’m always changing, moving, trying new things. I like the vibe of a band when it’s been together a long time, but I also like to change things.

Now that The Book Beriah has been released, what’s next for you?

I don’t know. (laughs) That’s a good question. I have no idea. I have to do more music. I feel like I have to do more music. I feel like the Zorn thing – the Angels and Beriah – both took everything. They completely embraced me. I’m looking forward to more projects with Tzadik. It changed me. (laughs) I’m laughing now but I wasn’t laughing then. You have to bleed a little bit for every project.

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