Molly Sheridan: In a lot of the articles I’ve read about you, writers can’t seem to resist calling you “unschooled” or dropping that you have “no formal training,” but you obviously have a pretty significant skill set.
Raz Mesinai: Well, I didn’t graduate high school. I didn’t want to go to school basically, [laughs] just like most kids, but I really stuck to my guns about it. The music thing happened at a very early age. I just loved music and I loved to play instruments. Sometimes I would see someone play an instrument and I wouldn’t be able to do it, and that would drive me crazy. When I was a kid I saw a guy playing spoons. He just had two spoons and he did all these amazing rhythms. And for a year I was so upset that I couldn’t figure out how he did it.
MS: So let’s start with the first instruments you played, because that was the way in, wasn’t it?
RM: Yeah, it was. I played instruments, but actually when I was around ten I got into electronics in the sense of turntables. I listened to a lot of hip-hop and I was doing beats for classmates who were rapping. So that was my first music production, my first composition, which is more just pushing a button or using an Atari computer and transforming your voice to like “robot” or “fresh” and stuff like that. Then I had one turntable and I’d try to scratch, and that actually was a big part of how I learned to do music.
MS: And that was just the influence of being a kid in New York? Not every ten-year-old has a turntable and is making beats for his friends.
RM: That was definitely from New York, but I was going back and forth between Israel and New York. In Israel I was very much influenced by percussion, and also Bedouin music and poetry. So I guess I just simultaneously got interested in all these things. I was also into comic books and drawing. I really thought I was going to be a comic book artist or a writer. I didn’t think I would ever become a musician; I didn’t think I was ever going to be good enough. Anyway, I would find an instrument and then figure out my own way of playing it. Eventually it would kind of slowly bring me to the way other people were playing, but I had to figure it out for myself. It definitely makes it sound different. Sometimes I thought I should take classes, but I just never did. Maybe I was just lazy. I think that probably is the answer, but I wasn’t lazy in the sense, I mean, I practiced every day, all day, doing it in my own way. And I wanted to create a certain music that I had in my head that I didn’t hear anywhere else. Deep inside I knew I had to learn the instruments myself in order to do that, just to avoid having it too much in the pool of the genre-obsessed music world. That’s really my goal.
MS: So what was it about the instruments that you picked that really spoke to you?
RM: The frame drum was the first instrument. It’s a circular drum with a hollow back, just skin on one side. I just started noticing how this drum appears all over the world in different cultures. That was interesting to me and I wanted to learn to play it. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. And I like the sound of a goat skin for some reason, as opposed to a cow skin. Then I also played piano. I think the studio comes in when I was around 18. I went to a high school called City As School. It’s an internship school for kids who just don’t want to deal. I ended up in some fashion design internship for some reason and then I started doing lighting at the La Mama theaters and got into the mixing of live sound. [Meanwhile,] I was making cassettes of my music and selling them on the street. I ran into this guy John Ward, who was older than me and much more experienced in production and stuff. He brought me into the studio and showed me how to mix. We started making tracks and I started mixing, so that was like another instrument.
That’s what brings me to dub music, because dub music is the art of the studio—actually using the mixing board as an instrument, literally. I learned a lot about how to play my instruments thought that. Sometimes I imitate the effect of delay, but I do it live, or the sound of a flanger or different effects. I like to apply that to my instruments without applying the actual effect. That got me more into composing. And I wanted to compose more acoustic music that sounded like the electronic music I like, but I always yearned for the sound of acoustic instruments and live players. So that’s it in a nutshell.
MS: Well, let’s keep going with that idea of you wanting to compose for people, because that brings up a lot of issues of dealing with them and, not being a trained composer, how you communicate with them. I guess I’m thinking of a piece like Before the Law. When you went to record that, how much of it was improvised, what was notated, what was crafted completely after the fact in the studio?
RM: Before the Law is a good example of a way of composing that’s more like directing a film, like directing actors. You have a script, and then the person reading the lines can do a lot of different things and it really matters who the actor is. I pick musicians according to the story that I’m trying to do. Their personalities come through, mostly through improvising, but I want that to come out.
The thing about Before the Law is that it’s mostly composed, a little bit improvised, and everything is sampled. So, we do recording sessions, and then I take very small parts and put it in a sampler and mix it all up. Actually in the end it’s impossible to perform, so it’s a record. For a while I believed that live performances weren’t going to happen in a few years. People were going to be so afraid to come out of their houses that they were just going to do records. They would be like books. For me, that’s what I do. I make these objects that can be given to people or found places. And the live performance thing—I love to do it, but it’s actually more rare for me to do live shows than most musicians.
MS: It seems like you do your share, though.
RM: I do my share, and I’m going to do more, because now I’m going towards the more notated way of doing things in order to best achieve my goals as far as getting the players to really do exact things. You can’t really beat that system [laughs]. I used to create a soundscape electronically by myself—percussion, electronics, and then I’d ask the players to imitate those sounds as best as they could. I did a lot of Before the Law that way.
MS: How are you doing the composing now? Is that just another self-taught aspect of what you’re doing? Are you notating traditionally?
RM: My wife [Marina Rosenfeld] helps me with the notation thing, as far as how it looks and straightening it out. But I’m still coming from—I’m not trying to make classical music. I’m not interested in making classical music.
MS: How do you define classical music?
RM: Well, notated music. That’s what it is. It’s very wide, what that is, these days, but certain things need to be notated for my ideas right now. And the good thing is that they’re very easy to notate. It’s just that then I have to direct them how to play it in the way I want, and that’s not too easy for particularly classical musicians. Generally I work with improvisers because they understand how to improvise on a line. And I’m also an improviser, so I feel that’s an important asset to those records. But I also have other pieces that I don’t want improvisation on at all, and for those, other people are involved. Everybody is useful in these different ways.
MS: Now, you put discs out on Tzadik, and at least one of them labeled you a “Downtown composer.” Does that label have any meaning for you?
RM: No, none whatsoever. [laughs] I mean I live on 144th St.
MS: But is it geography? Even if it is, you play at places like Tonic and The Stone.
RM: Well, that’s the problem. It’s always geography and that’s what I’m trying to stay away from. I mean, I’m a mutt. I don’t feel like I belong to America, or I belong to Israel, or I belong to any of these places, and the same goes for music. I don’t belong to Downtown music. I don’t belong to electronic music. I’m free. I’m a person. I’ve earned that. But you can’t get away from it. You do a record for a label and they have their aesthetic that they’re trying to keep to, and I think that is actually a good idea for the most part from a selling point of view, but morally I’m very much against it. So I think my biggest goal is to get away from that as an artist. The Downtown thing is so wide. Downtown music—that could be a lot of different styles of music, so it’s okay, but it’s still geography and it’s still meaningless. I don’t think there’s a specific sound to Downtown music. If someone didn’t know someone was from “Downtown,” would they know it was Downtown music? I’m not sure that would be the case.
MS: You say that now, but you’ve had a lot of years on the New York music scene. Do you think there was a time when Downtown meant more than that? Did it end?
RM: End? No, it’s always there, I just don’t know what it means, just like you don’t know what it means. [laughs] It’s a place, and it’s a group of people, but all those people I don’t see as Downtown musicians. You have to put that in your bios and stuff. A lot of my bios, keep in mind, are written by other people, because I can’t write a bio for the life of me. I think I want to get other musicians to write my bios; that would probably be better. But all these people—Ikue Mori, John Zorn—they are definitely individual people and their music is very wide. It goes a lot of places and reaches further around imagination than downtown New York. When I hear Ikue Mori’s music, I don’t feel like I’m sitting in a café in downtown New York; I’m in outer space. I had a problem with this with illbient music. I was very much involved in the beginnings of that and I just ran as soon as I heard illbient, like they were putting a name to something that was really just an off-shoot of what had already been occurring in electronic music. Even electronic music, it could just go on like that, but you have to stop somewhere. We’d have total anarchy. We have to say, okay, well, this is what it is.
MS: So, if you don’t want to put it in boxes, who should be the person who’s chopping it up?
RM: I don’t think anyone should. In a better world we wouldn’t have to do that, but we do. We definitely need to have names. I mean, we have names, our countries have names, our musical genres have names. Names aren’t bad; what bothers me is the war that happens, especially in music, between genres. That just drives me crazy, and that’s rampant in classical music. It’s in all music. And that’s what I’m trying to focus on getting away from. Everything’s involved, everyone’s relevant, all musical styles are relevant. You learn that from being a DJ, because you can take any record and put it right with another one and play it and see if it works. As long as you think of it as sound and not musical genres, you won’t have a problem.
MS: It makes me think of the people who label your Badawi project as “world music.” Because it has particularly ethnic-sounding instruments to Western ears, I guess? That must be fun for you.
RM: That’s the worst. I’m actually in the world music encyclopedia, which I was really into, and then I was like, what the hell is world music? I think I do other-world music, you know?
MS: So you’re making up labels again.
RM: Yeah, well, I think you have to when you’re upset with the labels that are put on you. You have to come up with a new label. It’s the only way to do it.