Sparks Fly with Rob Cambre and Thurston Moore

photo by Dan Fox

If you weren’t a subtle person, you might think of noisy, improvisation-oriented guitarist Rob Cambre as the “Thurston Moore of New Orleans.” For one thing, Cambre has the balls to get up in front of crowds alone with just his guitar, somehow managing to make something huge and fascinating that overshadows the musician, the way real music should. Cambre was an admitted disciple of early Eddie Van Halen, but by the time he heard Sonic Youth as a college freshman, Cambre was already listening to Peter Kowald and Evan Parker and other improvisational “free” players. “At that time I didn’t know Thurston and Lee Ranaldo were really interested in that music also,” says Cambre. “And when they started in interviews touting it and speaking up for it, that was very validating for me. They helped bolster my commitment to doing that kind of music—and booking it. Sonic Youth made me realize there might be a place for me in the world of playing music publicly.”

Cambre seems to share not just various guitar molestation techniques but also a creative arc with Moore’s crew: whereas SY went from the clanging and scraping of Bad Moon Rising to the MTV snarl of “100%,” Cambre has recently cut back a bit on free music to light the wick with more Neil Young-esque playing, in both R. Scully’s Rough 7 and Ratty Scurvics’ Blackmarket Butchers. In a rare show of cosmic justice, Cambre has graced the Jazz Fest jumbotron these last few years.

Since 1997, Cambre has also been the driving force behind Anxious Sound productions, bringing eclectic musicians from all over the world to present a different style of improvisation than what’s normally experienced in New Orleans. More than a few world-renowned musicians might never have played the cradle of American musical civilization were it not for Cambre.

To that end, Cambre played a big part in Dithyrambalina, not only as a three-time performer at the Music Box, but as a bridge to booking several out-of-town stars. On Sunday May 27, 2012, Cambre ceased to have any reason to go on living after playing an incredibly awesome duo show at the Music Box – what amounted to a guitar duel – with noise music hero Thurston Moore. ANTIGRAVITY was honored to sit down with Moore and Cambre to discuss their relationship over the years, the legend of New Orleans noise monster Donald Miller’s band Borbetomagus and the duo’s show together at Dithyrambalina.


Wow, Thurston Moore. Thanks for sitting down with us. I am a huge fan… of Rob Cambre[everyone laughs] So I wanted to ask you about the history of the Moore-Cambre connection.

Thurston Moore: Whoa, “The Moore-Cambre Connection”! How’d you know the name of our duo? Rob accosted me on the streets of Manhattan in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Or he might have come up to me at some Sonic Youth gig in the ‘80s.

Rob Cambre: I have a specific memory. Austin, Texas in 1991 maybe, when y’all were touring for Dirty. You did an in-store at Waterloo.

TM: Ah, 1991, the year funk broke.

RC: [to Thurston] So, I remember I think I asked you if you’d ever gotten to attend any Charles Gayle gigs in New York. I was like, “Oh have you ever gotten to see Charles Gayle?” and Thurston was like, [affects snob voice] “Only about a thousand times.

TM: [laughs] I remember you talking to me at a Vision Fest gig outside – that’s a festival put together by William Parker and Patricia Parker in New York City, an alternative festival to a lot of the jazz festivals that were happening in the city. It’s focused specifically on this lineage of spiritual jazz, free jazz, avant-garde jazz—not so much free improvisation. It had a lot more to do with the jazz idiom. With improvisers who—

RC: —who had a connections to the African America continuum of that tradition.

TM: But then they’d ask me to play. Like they thought, “Oh, if he plays, maybe somebody will show up,” or something. But that doesn’t always work. There was always a little bit of a thing where I felt the exploitation; but I really wanted to do this and they were rubbing their hands together like, we’re gonna get all these grunge rockers in here. But they know better; they’re not gonna go see that guy play noise. And so sometimes I’d play at these places and it was just crickets there. So I remember talking to Rob outside of one of the Vision Fests. I realized I had met him before in my travels. But it was the first time we really talked about stuff and he was talking about New Orleans and that was really cool. I think he was making some ministrations about, “If you come down there, there’s a place to play badda bing badda bang,” and I was like “Uh, you know…Okay…”


But Rob is a central figure! He’s to be taken seriously!

[Cambre laughs]

TM: I realized that later after I started hearing and seeing that guys were actually going down to New Orleans and Rob was booking it all. [To Rob] I think you also sent me some cassettes in the mail of you playing with different people.

RC: This was back when people used to use the mail. And he sent me this very nice letter back—back when people wrote letters. These were not official CDs but dubbed cassettes of crudely recorded gigs of Dave Capello and I at the Faubourg Center and the Dream Palace. Pretty crude. But I thought it was worth a shot to send it along and see if he was an interested kindred spirit.


Thurston, besides your friendship with Rob, do you have any other connection to New Orleans?

TM: Sonic Youth would blow through here on all our tours but it was always for literally 24 hours at the most. My sense of the geography was… it was a mystery to me where I was all the time. I never got to spend so much downtime here until just now. I came here about three weeks ago to do this Fender guitar concert [with Roky Erickson], and I made sure I was going to be here for three days. I really wanted to see what I could see. First, I wanted to find out where all the used bookstores are, then the record stores. I went to Domino Sound last time, and this time I went to Euclid. And I also knew Donald Miller was here. I know Donald from the ‘70s.


Donald Miller is also the man. He’s kind of quiet socially so a lot of people don’t know about his secret identity as an international noise icon. Tell those who don’t know a little about Donald.

TM: Around 1979 his band Borbetomagus was this extremely iconoclastic ensemble trio in New York that no one could ever get a handle on until much later, almost in retrospect, even though they’d never broken up. They were only celebrated by about three people in the city. And they were kind of this band, if they were on the bill… first of all, you were wondering how the fuck did they get on the bill; secondly, you knew they were going to come out and chase the audience away with this immense sound, just a complete wall of noise. And nobody was doing that then; or else if they were they were being very formal about it.


That was around the time Sonic Youth started?

TM: We started in about ‘80 and one of our very first gigs was at Inroads, a small place in SoHo, and that’s where Borbetomagus would play; and we would just be like oh my god, this is ridiculous. People would get up and be like “I am outta here” because it was unbearable. There was no context for it at the time, highly amplified new avant-garde music or whatever… We were on the same circuit in a way. Sonic Youth was not accepted, really. We were just this strange fucking thing that tried to get a gig here and there, so we ended up in the same boat as Borbetomagus and played on some bills together when we were just clanging on guitars. Borbetomagus had jazz instrumentation, like saxophones, but it was not jazz music; it was something else. It was super industrial. There was nothing else like it then. You had these formalists like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham playing sort of loud, mass multi-tuned guitars and that was different, that was accepted…

RC: Those were composed pieces; they identified themselves as composers.

TM: They were composers, radicalizing the idea of what a new music composition is using rock instrumentation. But Borbetomagus didn’t give a shit about any of that. [laughs] They were way beyond any formal concepts.

RC: Their thing was about creating this monolith. Like if you can imagine the darkest, most dense Mark Rothko painting if it came to life as a sonic force. It’s like that. But now they’re revered.


Thurston, how did you get involved with the Music Box?

TM: They solicited me via email. And I get a lot of these solicitations sometimes: “Come to my festival in Poland and play in the woods.” And I’d love to but… This was another one: “We have this weird thing going on in New Orleans.” Okay. And I sort of put it on the back burner. Then, while I was here for that Fender concert, Rob was telling me “You need to see this place.” He took me here and said, “I wouldn’t steer you wrong, wouldn’t take you to some stupid thing.” And he was right. It was really cool.

Usually at these performances, there is a musician in every station and everyone’s playing at once.

TM: Yeah, I was told that, so New Orleans Airlift were like, “Is there anyone you’d want to bring in and do it with you? We can think of some local musicians.” And I asked “What if I do it with Rob Cambre?” Because we’d always wanted to do a guitar thing together.


And so you decided to just ignore the whole Music Box thing and just play guitar?

[everyone laughs]

TM: No, no. We came at this trying to conceive of how to make this work without it just being two guys walking around and playing – which is kind of a cool thing too but… We wanted to figure out how to make it the best of both worlds, where we get to do the guitar improv but we’ll do it within the context of the Music Box. We were here for the last couple days thinking about it, looking at it, playing around. We had the amps outside in the open first, then we stuck them inside the buildings and we decided to keep them in there. The ideas were pretty easy, they just happened.


Anything about the Music Box that you were super intrigued by that you’d like to explore further?

TM: There was something we didn’t end up doing, the squeaky floor house. We were jamming in there earlier and thought that would be really cool. And I also did the water organ: that was a last minute thing. The last couple of days I thought it was pretty ineffectual to what we were trying to do. But before the show [Jayme Kalal] showed me how to use it and I thought maybe… When I used it, instead of playing it like an organ, I thought it would be better used as a speaker shredder; the harder you hit the key the harder the speaker distorts, so I was trying to keep up this noise thing…

RC: John Cale it a little bit.


Tonight was also the first time I personally had seen someone use the Gamalatron. It has a sort of player piano auto setting, but you were playing it manually, correct?

TM: Yeah. People were saying the Gamalatron is cool, but it’s sort of a built-in thing. And it’s true, but I felt challenged by that when I was looking at it. Not being a trained piano player, I’ve always been into doing piano patterns. I’ve even recorded some of that stuff and had it on Sonic Youth records, too. So I thought, “What if I approach the Gamalatron more like a piano?” And with the keys I tried to get these same kinds of moods and get into these trancey kind of patterns… It was also fun that there were people up top when we played the String Wall and the built in autoharp. Right as I ran up there I just walloped the String Wall and the people sitting up there all jumped like “What the fuck?!” And when I started scraping the String Wall with the file, sparks started coming off of it!


Rob Cambre, how did you first get involved with the Music Box experiment?

RC: Quintron first approached me about the project in the summer of 2011, when we were both in the studio playing as guests on the new Egg Yolk Jubilee. When he told me they really wanted to involve Weasel Walter, Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang – three of my favorite drummers! – I jumped at the opportunity. I brought Hamid down in 1999 and Michael I’d recently brought in for a duo concert with Joe McPhee that’s now out as the record Creole Gardens: A New Orleans Suite [on NoBusiness Records]. And Weasel Walter, I’d opened for Flying Luttenbachers in 1996. So the prospect of getting all these guys down here to do some playing with them was exciting to say the least.


Who worked with or near you during the project and blew your mind the most?

RC: In terms of the individual players, I’d have to single out Michael Zerang. The man really is a master-level drummer and he was not only able to make Ratty’s “Percussion Lair” installation work well as an instrument, but also—by the clarity and authority of his playing—bring the ensemble together and focus us rhythmically. This was very important for a project like this where we didn’t always have clear sight lines to each other. I was also impressed by Quintron’s skills as a conductor, conceptualist and inspirational force for the musicians. He brought some charming and inviting imagery to the “score” (which used word imagery and some graphics to fine effect), had good clear instructions for the musicians and was really on top of things in terms of keeping solid rhythm cues and being aware of all the instruments at all times. These abilities, combined with the positive motivating attitude he brought to the project, went a long way toward making everyone feel appreciated and focusing our energy as a team. On the instrument construction, maintenance and organizational front, I worked most closely with Ross Harmon (whose instruments I played) and Taylor Shepherd. Taylor was there every step of the way, doing whatever needed to be done, always with enthusiasm and a smile. What knocked me out the most is that this did not look or sound like something transplanted from another city’s art scene (New York, San Francisco, Berlin). It really felt like a genuine New Orleans expression, which as a native Louisianian is important to me and I think Delaney, Theo and Taylor deserve a lot of the credit for that.


This project was compelling largely because of all the disparate people it threw together; who were you most thrilled to meet through this project?

RC: A lot of the folks I met or worked with for the first time are well-known locals like Theresa Andersson, Ben Jaffe and Washboard Chaz. This broke down some perceived barriers between ‘scenes.’  I mean really, given that I usually do wild improvised music and noise guitar, you wouldn’t expect me to share a stage with Chaz or Theresa, but of course we all have a lot in common and got along well immediately. That might not happen in other cities, but here, no problem.