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Back in issue #23 (2001), we interviewed guitarist Dennis Rea, who had been an active musician for many years at that point, with a varied and interesting career. He talked about his accomplishments up to that point and his plans for the future. From the perspective of that time, we’re now more than ten years into the future, so it seemed like a good time for a new interview and get some updates on the things he talked about.

by Jon Davis, Published 2015-10-02

photography by Jon Davis

Dennis Rea with Moraine in 2011Reading through the old interview that I recently put on the website, there are some obvious questions that come to mind. A person reading that article might well wonder what's happened since.

Thank you kindly for giving me a chance to update this interview, and for being the first publication to invite me to sound off at length in print back when it was first published. Much has happened in my musical life since then, and I like to think that that initial interview gave me a nice push in the right direction – I'm forever grateful to Exposé!

You talked about your time with Earthstar, an obscure band with an interesting place in history. Has there been any progress on the Earthstar albums being reissued?

To date, none of the Earthstar material has been reissued apart from the aforementioned short-lived pirate edition of French Skyline on CD. I continue to field an increasing number of inquiries about the Earthstar material, including a recent message from a party who seemed to have serious interest in releasing the back catalog, but the decision ultimately rests with project founder / leader Craig Wuest, who just doesn't seem to have interest in pursuing it. It's been years since I've been in contact with Craig, though another Earthstar member did apprise him of the inquiries. I'm not sure if he's still involved in music-making in any capacity at this point, but I'd love to see him resurface and do believe the old Earthstar LPs deserve a second life (and in the case of the 'lost' Earthstar session Sleeper the Nightlifer, a first life).

What went on with the Seattle Improvised Music Festival after 2001? Is it still going? Do you have any involvement with it?

I ended my involvement with the Seattle Improvised Music Festival shortly after the Exposé interview was published, basically because an ever larger share of the organizational burden was falling on my shoulders and I was approaching the point of volunteer burnout. I handed over the reins to some of the younger improvisers then coming onto the local scene, trusting that youthful energy and different perspectives would keep the event vital. Pianist Gust Burns helmed the festival for roughly 10 years after my departure, and SIMF continues to this day – at 30-plus years, it's far and away the longest-running annual event of its kind in North America, and quite possibly the world. Under Gust's direction, the festival shifted its focus away from more expressive forms of improvisation toward so-called "lowercase" improv – a severely minimal (and to my mind uneventful) approach to improvising where personal expression and bravado displays of technique are effectively taboo. The festival is currently back under the direction of its founder, Paul Hoskin, who will no doubt lead it in a different direction.

Dennis Rea with Flame Tree 2012

What ever happened to the lap steel you were so enthusiastic about? You don't seem to play it anymore.

It's true that I rarely dust off the lap steel nowadays, not out of any conscious decision or disinterest, but simply because there's been no clear need for it in most of my current projects. But now that you've brought it up, it might just be the nudge I needed to reinvestigate it.

That I would love to see and hear! You talked about being with Jeff Greinke's Land. What happened with Land after the release of Road Movies?

Land basically 'deliquesced' amicably a year or two after Road Movies was released, after a good long run in which we felt we'd amply had our say. The various band members were increasingly involved with other projects and felt it would be counterproductive to force Land's continuance. Land founder Jeff Greinke moved to Tucson shortly thereafter; bassist Fred Chalenor returned to Portland; and as many Exposé readers are no doubt aware, drummer Bill Rieflin went on to become one of the drummers in the current incarnation of King Crimson.

Dennis Rea with Non Grata in 2011

Another project that was current in 2001 was Axolotl, with fellow guitarist Bill Horist. Whatever became of that band? Are there any recordings?

Axolotl dissolved when some of the band members opted to devote more time to other incipient projects, but it was great fun while it lasted. We had begun recording an album under the astute guidance of Randall Dunn (now a world-renowned producer), but the sessions were abandoned after the departures of various parties and the recordings never came to fruition. Some pesky Exposé reporter has been bugging us to stage a reunion, though...

I think you're referring to me... You mentioned a few other projects (Stackpole, Outland, Eric Apoe, Pete Comley & Simon Poole). What became of those?

All of the projects mentioned eventually 'petered' out, except, fittingly, for some intermittent collaborations with Peter Comley. In all cases there was no rancor but simply a dissipation of centrifugal force and the pull of other projects, such as my primary band Moraine. Stackpole did play a thoroughly enjoyable reunion gig in summer 2013, and plans are afoot for me to contribute to a coming recording by my longtime partner Eric Apoe.

Dennis Rea - Views from Chicheng Precipice coverAs of 2001 you were thinking a solo album might be possible for 2002. How did that turn out?

The solo album took longer than anticipated but eventually materialized as the 2010 release Views from Chicheng Precipice on MoonJune Records, on which I subjected traditional East Asian music to radical surgery through use of atypical instrumentation, harmonization, noise, chromaticism, free improvisation, and amplification. I still consider Views my most fully realized and satisfying work to date. I'm now planning what would essentially be a Volume 2, this time focusing on the traditional music of Central Asia (Mongolia, Tuva, Tibet, Xinjiang, Siberia).

Dennis Rea - Live at the Forbidden City coverYour book Live at the Forbidden City was still in the works as of the original interview. Tell us how things went after that.

Live at the Forbidden City finally entered the world in a self-published, print-on-demand edition in 2006. I chose to go that route basically out of impatience, with the consequence that the title effectively vanished into a black hole. However, those who did read the tome reacted very favorably, including the proprietor of Blue Ear Books, who published a proper, newly updated edition in 2015. An ebook version will appear shortly. As the years pass and China changes at a whirlwind pace, I believe that the book offers an increasingly valuable snapshot of a China that has well and truly vanished in the wake of today's stampede toward materialism and reckless development.

You also spoke about an electronic and print newsletter you were involved with called The Tentacle. Whatever happened to The Tentacle? Does it still exist? Should it?

The Tentacle folded its tent not long after that Exposé interview, a victim of all-too-familiar volunteer burnout – the considerable labors necessary to keep this free publication afloat proved unsustainable on top of its publishers' day jobs and musical involvements. It's still fondly remembered in these parts, and nothing remotely similar has appeared to fill the vacuum in creative music coverage left by the demise of The Tentacle.

That covers the topics in the original interview, and I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t move on to other things. What new projects have come along since 2001?

I'm happy to report that my music career took a real upswing in the years following the Exposé interview. Far and away the most important reason for that was my serendipitous meeting with MoonJune Records honcho Leonardo Pavkovic – a chance purchase of a Soft Machine CD from the label's website led to a conversation with Leonardo and his subsequent interest in and support for my music. I've released five titles on MoonJune since: three by Moraine, one by the free-jazz quintet Iron Kim Style, and the above-mentioned Views from Chicheng Precipice, with two further releases planned for 2016 – a live outing under my own name with a cast of gifted Seattle instrumentalists, and the debut recording by Zhongyu, a singular slab of Asian-prog fusion that I was honored to co-produce and play on. Through Leonardo's agency Moraine has been privileged to play NEARfest, BajaProg, and other prominent progressive-rock events, as well as the 2015 MuzEnergo Tour of Russia, where among other improbable happenings Moraine played to an audience of 5,000 in a wrestling arena in Tuva at 2a.m. I also participated in the previous year's MuzEnergo Tour with an international cast of improvisers; further Russian doings are presently afoot for next year, as well as a project taking shape in Spain.

Moraine live at BajaProg 2014

Apart from Moraine and Zhongyu, my current band involvements include processed thumb piano trio Tempered Steel (with Ffej and Frank Junk), Jack Gold-Molina's Flame Tree (with Hawkwind founder Nik Turner), Subduction Zone (with Wally Shoup and Tom Zgonc), the Heaney-Henneman-Rea Guitar Threesome, Don Berman's Empty Boat, the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, and Daniel Barry's Celestial Rhythm Orchestra. I've appeared on roughly 20 releases since that interview, as either leader or sideman, including records by the late great French composer Hector Zazou (Strong Currents); a two-CD document of one of the earliest free-improv sessions recorded in China, which also included legendary drummer Han Bennink (Free Touching: Live in Beijing at Keep in Touch); and my first outing as a soloist with jazz big band (the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra's Gimme Some Sugar, Baby!). I've also found it extremely gratifying that two recordings I made back in the 80s were reissued this year in deluxe editions – the Savant collection Artificial Dance (on RVNG Intl.) and Shredder Orpheus: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (on Light in the Attic Records) – proving that you never can tell when some seemingly hopelessly obscure project might be rediscovered by a new generation of listeners. Finally, my masochistic gene still has me organizing events for the benefit of other deserving musicians, currently the Seaprog festival of progressive/avant rock and the periodic Zero-G Concert Series.


Filed under: Interviews

Related artist(s): K Leimer / Savant, Hector Zazou, Iron Kim Style, Moraine, Dennis Rea, Wally Shoup, Tempered Steel, Tom Zgonc, Zhongyu / Super Z Attack Team, Stackpole, Land, Earthstar

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