Paul Sears is probably best known for his many years and numerous recordings with east coast jazz-rock mainstays The Muffins. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as multitasking is a way of life for Sears, and throughout the years he has been involved in numerous different bands and projects in a variety of roles. During the summer of 2007, Exposé had a chance to talk with Paul, and recap some of the highlights of the drummer’s long, diverse, and continuing career.
by Peter Thelen, Published 2008-01-01
Let's talk about your project with Present bassist Keith Macksoud, Thee Maximalists. How did you become involved with it, and were you there right from the beginning?
Well, I had been wanting for years to do something with my time when The Muffins aren’t up and running, which is a good part the year. I met and spent a couple evenings with Keith in 2002 at Progday where The Muffins were gigging and he gave me a copy of High Infidelity, the record he had done with Present. His bass playing absolutely blew me away, and I thought, “Now, how can I get to work with this guy?” I like to start any project with — first — the bass player. I think that with a band that has bass and drums, the bass and drums must work well or anything else you plop on top will not. I love Jannick Top, and had actually tried to get him over to the U.S. on a couple of occasions to play since about 1999, but he is just so busy over in Old Europe. Maybe someday? Keith reminded me very much of Jannick Top, and he claims Jack Bruce as a major influence. Keith was open to getting together with just the two of us playing and so we did that many times just, uh, improvising and rocking out in my basement studio. After several sessions and jamming with a variety of people, either Keith or I, I forget who, suggested that we do improvisational gigs. Name time. We bandied about a few names; Rio Speedwagon being one! I heard something on the radio about minimalism one day and the name Thee Maximalists just jumped out! It is Keith and I, and whoever else we both agree on. Besides us two, Thee Maximalists have included at various times:
It is a lot of fun working with Keith and experimenting with all the other folks. We have played at Orion in Baltimore several times and have some very good recordings. I am looking for a label now and we have some more shows planned. Sound files are on my MySpace page.
As the lineup has evolved from the basic drums and bass, have you found that some configurations along the way have worked out better than others? And that said, do you think that the group will eventually stabilize around a larger (than two) group of regular musicians?
That is a tough question, as we have only done one repeat gig with the same lineup and that was just with Yanni. We do not rehearse. Since it's always improvised, it's always a crap shoot; we just roll the dice onstage. I will have to say that all have worked well in places. I plan to compile a release with stuff from all configurations. Whether we will stabilize with more than just Keith and I remains to be seen. Dave Newhouse from The Muffins is a possibility as he has done two shows, had fun, and wants to do the next I am planning. A lot of it to date has been subject to the schedules of musicians we like that happen to be in other bands.
Since Thee Maximalists is a purely improvisational unit, what are the most important elements of improvisation for you, especially in the context of the group, and what percentage of the time do you figure you spend 'airborne' as opposed to the time you spend working on getting there.
Airborne! I love it. It is fun and that is important. In the context of the group, Keith and I try sometimes to provide a foundation for others to augment or solo on top of, and sometimes we avoid that entirely! Listening to the other players is, to me anyway, the most important part. Being in a live situation with an audience is also important to me, as an audience inspires. The element of experiencing the unknown is important to me. As it is being improvised, a “piece,” if you will, is unique in that it is spontaneously composed, on the moment, for that audience only. We spend all our time trying to get airborne to some height, and everybody included will have their own altimeter to judge “airborne” by!
In the early 90s you were part of a band called Chainsaw Jazz that released one excellent disc on Cuneiform. Tell us a little about the group, and how did your involvement with them begin?
Well, the late 80s actually was when we started. This was a short-lived band unfortunately. This is also another example of a project started by myself and a bass player. There was this gal Theresa with a cool band called the Theresa Gunn Group gigging around the DC area in the mid to late 80s, and one show I saw she had this new wild looking bass player with long hair and Chuck Taylors that was playing some amazing stuff around their relatively straight rock riffs while hopping around onstage. What a ham. Like Billy Sheehan today. I loved it. I approached this guy, Mark Smoot, and asked him what was up, and turns out he was a fan of The Muffins. We got together and just improvised for the better part of a month, and arranged one tune together ("Momentary Discomfort"), decided we could play together and, “Yeah, let's do a band.”
I put an ad in the Washington City Paper, and we got probably 20 responses from guitarists and one sax player, Mark Gilbert. Some of the guitar auditions were hysterical. One guy named Pratt even showed up with his home made Pratocaster! He reminded me of George Benson. We ended up with then-17-year-old Christian Nagle on guitar. He improvised well, had a great sound, and played with more chainsaw and less jazz, which was what we were looking for. We nicknamed him “Pop Boy” for his overt cuteness, youthful exuberance, and the fact that he had a few teenage girlfriends that would come and check us out — doesn't happen much now! Mark Gilbert took the plunge on sax and so we had us a spiffy instrumental quartet. Mark has played with more people that can be listed, but includes Root Boy Slim, The Tempations, and Cab Calloway. A fine player.
Mark Gilbert also knew this guy, Ed Maguire, who played electric mandolin and violin, and asked us if we wanted to check him out. I said, "No way do we want mandolin and violin in this band." He wore me down. Mark Gilbert knew something I didn't. Finally Smoot and I said OK. In walks Ed, a huge and conservative-looking guy in bermuda shorts, close cropped hair, and loafers. He was driving a Cadillac to boot! He plugged a five string mandolin into the PA with a delay / sampling device and played this ridiculous, roughly two minute solo and just totally amazed us. Sold. He was in immediately. He also plays bass and studied with Jaco ("Big Ed" in the Jaco biography by Bill Milkowski).
I almost forgot: This band was actually named “Next” for its first two gigs, and a fan called it "chainsaw jazz" at the 1989 Washington Riverfest. That became the band name shortly after that gig. Having that band follow a Gospel group at a huge outdoor festival is a treasured memory. Besides being a fine player, Mark Smoot was and still is a technical wiz and was building an eight track analog studio at the time; quite propitious. We recorded most of our only studio recording, DisConcerto, during May / June of 1989. I remember this vividly, as halfway through the recording of the tune “Iranasaurus Tex” my son Niall, now 18, was born and a tree fell on my house that week! Christian Nagle left soon thereafter to pursue other interests. We did only only two or three more shows together. Later that year Mark Smoot met a great guitar player named Mark Stanley (see Thee Maximalists), who is an amazing guitarist and good friend, finished the DisConcerto project with us (playing on two tunes on that record), and did our last gig with us at DC Arts Center in 1990. Mark Stanley is today a Maximalist! End o’ story.
So you guys were already history by the time your CD was released on Cuneiform in ’92?
Correct. Took a while to get a cover together. Plus, the release had to fit Cuneiform's schedule. I wanted a wacky cartoon CD cover, so I checked around with folks I know. Marty Murphy delivered a fine one! Marty and I actually just got back in touch for the first time since then about a week ago.
Your bio lists some early, pre-Muffins bands that you were a member of in the early 70s: Sane Day and Tinsel’d Sin. What can you tell us about those bands? Did they release any recordings while you were with them?
Sane Day was my second gigging band and we were all about 18 and played almost entirely originals. We were a power trio and fancied ourselves as a kind of a low rent Mountain. I still see Bob Siegel the guitarist, who is now a realtor. The bass player, Pete Olson, is an academic musicologist somewhere in the midwest I last heard. Tinsel’d Sin — yes we ripped the title from an old Crimson tune — was an expanded Sane Day with keyboards, a second guitar and a singer who was an Italian guy that was a cross between Beefheart and Alice Cooper. This band played all originals as well. There were live recordings from both bands around that were released on CD in 2004 — to my surprise! As far as I know they are available only from Joe's Record Paradise in Silver Spring, MD. Bob our guitarist put them out on his label Stampede, which had done other local DC acts.
Your bio also states that from 1993 to 1998 you played with a band called “9353.” Tell us about this band. Do they have any recordings?
Actually 1995-1998, and it's cool that you should ask, as this is again on the horizon for me. By the time this goes to print we should be gigging! 9353 were in my opinion the best of the batch of 80s rock bands in Washington, DC. More folks have likely been in this band than Spinal Tap. I was a fan, and used to see them at the old 9:30 Club where they were a staple act. Bruce Hellington (the singer) and I had met back in the 80s as he lived with a friend of The Muffins, so we knew each other. They were loud, weird, wrote all their own stuff, had a twisted songwriting style, and did a great show. All the right elements! Bruce the singer is also phenomenal, and possesses unbelievable range. Hard to pin down their style as it was definitely their own. They reminded me just a little bit of Punishment of Luxury in their abrasive moments, but that's just to my ear. They made a couple of vinyls in the 80s which were also released on CD, and a CD-only release in the early 90s. Their stuff is out of print, but you can still score the vinyls and all three CDs (Overdoses at Your Mothers House, Make Your Last Days Loud Days, and Insult to Injury / Magically Delicious) on eBay and in record shops if you are lucky. [See an interview with Hellington here. - ed.] There are a couple 9353 fan sites. Bruce also made a great record with Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters and Nirvana) called Harlingtox A.D. That is documented on the Foo Fighters website. I was with 9353 briefly in 1995 and that version never got to a stage. In 1996-7 Bruce had decided to not sing, be the guitar player, asked me again to play with them, and so we had for awhile kind of a proggy instrumental trio with just keys, guitar, and drums. That was short-lived but fun and we did some gigs in DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. We did the new 9:30 Club in 1996 or ’97, I forget, and I was surprised at the turnout and to see folks there with 9353 tattoos! Now Bruce Hellington has decided to try a 9353 band again in the original configuration with him back singing. He asked me recently if I wanted to again do this, as the original bass player, Vance Bockis, is back in the area, and Mark Nickens, a staple rock guitar player in DC, is involved. I said yes to this venture, and am looking forward to gigging with them, as I have not played in the, pardon the expression, classic “rock band” environment in a good many years. We plan to play stuff from all 9353 CDs, the Harlingtox… stuff which has never been done live, and write new material. There will be some minor ground swells in DC I assure you when this band announces a gig!
Of the four core members of the current lineup of The Muffins, you were the last to join the group. Talk a bit about how you came to know the band in their early days, and eventually joined them.
Well, at the time I had recently moved back to Washington, DC from NJ in 1975 (whole ’nother story) ostensibly to join a group with — here we go again — a bass player (Pepe Gonzalez, now a well known jazz guy and good friend to this day), called Magick Theatre. This band was modeled on later Weather Report style fusiony electric stuff, and we also improvised. It was intense at times. We had woodwinds, Fender Rhodes (which I hope to never see again), bass, guitar, drums, and a percussionist. It was a cool group for a while. We did not record properly, but I have one badly recorded but cool gig we did in the can from 1976.
This group only did two shows, and then Pepe was leaning more towards traditional acoustic jazz, which I did not want to do. At the time, I was listening to Henry Cow, King Crimson, Genesis, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Canterbury stuff, Magma, Faust, PFM, Balleto di Bronzo, etc., etc. and loved it all. My tastes are all over the place. One day Pepe calls and asks if he can give my number to this guitarist he had met somewhere that was into Cow and other euro-avanty stuff. I said OK. This turned out to be Mike Zentner, who had recently left The Muffins and was interested in maybe playing with me, since we seemed to have similar interests. It was not to be. We have not played together to this day!
However, he told me all about The Muffins and how they had connected with Fred Frith, etc. and asked if I wanted to go see them. Billy, Dave, and Tom were a trio without drums at the time. Mike took me to a gig in their Gaithersburg back yard in the summer of 1976. I loved them. They even played "Solemn Music" by Henry Cow. These were the first people I had ever met that had anything really going in the direction I wanted to pursue. We talked awhile and they told me they had a dickens of a time keeping drummers. I think I ended up being the fourth or fifth. So, we agreed on a date to get together and play. I left Magick Theatre in September of 1976. The Muffins did our first gig together on October 2, 1976, my 23rd birthday at American University with our mutual friends, Grits. That's how this version of The Muffins began.
Your association with Fred Frith in the late 70s led to him working with The Muffins on the <185> album, and you guys working with him on his album Gravity. How did the association with Frith come about, and what other opportunities did it lead to for the band?
Well, lots I imagine, as it raised awareness about The Muffins and has helped ever since. I never sat and thought about specifics. When I met The Muffins, they already had a postal (non-violent that is!) relationship with Fred and Henry Cow. Fred contributed solo guitar pieces to the first Random Radar (our home grown label) vinyl release A Random Sampler. Lol Coxhill did the same.
Mike Zentner, as well as Steve Feigenbaum, went to England to see and meet Henry Cow in the mid and late 70s. Steve already knew The Muffins quite well as a teenager and was around all the time. In 1978 we did Giorgio Gomelsky’s ZU Festival in NYC, and that’s the first time The Muffins all met Fred, Chris Cutler, and Peter Blegvad. That ended up a bit of a mess, as the sound man Giorgio had on board bailed and — guess who got drafted? I ended up having to futz around with (on the job — no training!) and use one of Pink Floyd’s rental PAs in about 30 minutes. Feedback city! No spiffy headset audio link to the stage either. What a nightmare.
I remember the evening before or after (I forget) the fest, which was on October 8, 1978, hanging out at Giorgio’s place on W. 24th Street in NYC (where he still is) with Robert Fripp, Debbie Harry, Bill Laswell, and a lot of other fun folks. Shortly after that gig I was also asked by Daevid Allen to be in his new Gong band for a tour with Laswell, Mike Beinhorn, Kramer, and Rob Hertzberg, the main guitarist from Manster and Robal. This did not gel and I opted out. So did Rob. Sometime during 1979 when Fred was living in the U.S. he called up and asked us if we wanted to do a record with him. This ended up being Gravity, which was originally vinyl on Ralph Records and has been out on vinyl, cassette, and CD on several labels since. I believe it is his best seller even today. We helped both him and Chris Cutler do solo and duo gigs in Baltimore and Washington, DC back in those days.
During 1980, he offered to produce a Muffins record. We jumped at that! This was his first production effort outside his own music I think. We had just done a small tour playing this material, the band was at its tightest, and the record was <185>. This was done at a very nice analog studio, Track Recorders in Silver Spring, MD. It had a large room, 3M 16 track 2” tape, an 8’ or 9’ Kawai grand piano, nice German microphones, and an old but great sounding 24x16 Rupert Neve console. Posthumous Jimi Hendrix and Linda Ronstadt hit records were mixed there. Fred had been recently working with the Residents and had us go rent an Eventide Clockworks harmonizer and used it on that record. That is my favorite Muffins record because I love that material, Fred was great to work with, the band was so freakin’ tight and we had a (hooray) “real” piano. Fred played a little on <185> too. The band was tight enough so that we only required four days to do that record with two days recording and two days mixing. All multi-track tape to 30 IPS stereo master. No digital editing! Outtakes, live radio broadcasts, and home tapes from that period and Gravity sessions resulted in the Open City record. Some are from a recording we made at home for Fred as a guide for the tunes on <185>. Peter Blegvad, John Greaves, and Fred even did one gig with us all playing together at Georgetown University back in, I think, 1980.
In ’81, Right after <185>, when The Muffins seemed to be at their peak, the band disappeared for almost 20 years! With the exception of the Open City CD (which was archival material from the days when the band was active) and one song on Unsettled Scores, there was pretty much nothing heard from the band until rumors of a new album started circulating in the late 90s, which turned out to be Loveletter #1. What happened with the band all those years? Why did you quit when everything looked like you were poised for relative success?
Well, everything may have “looked” that way, but no. I saw someplace written that we had a “successful prog career.” Amusing. All three words are incorrect. The area where we lived near Washington, DC was a blues-rock haven to begin with, and in 1981 that area was quickly becoming overrun with young, bratty, and severely insular punk rock bands that could not see past their nifty razor blades or their parents’ Mercedes. A few of them were good, and it is a pity that more camaraderie was not established with them, because we had a similar attitude and aesthetic but different instruments and approach. We were also much older! They did have their own scene. The Muffins were very tight and the live shows were good. I am collecting boots now.
However, if bands think getting gigs is hard now, we had no Internet back then. The Internet was word of mouth, telephones, and flyers. Try that today! Want to tour? Say hello to your $700 phone bill. We were just not able to secure enough work to survive on the music.
Tom had a baby on the way and left the band, my dad was diagnosed with cancer that year, and everyone had personal lives to get on with. Billy, Dave, and I carried on with a few projects, but that did not last very long. Dave and I moved out, and Billy and his wife Laurie kept the house for awhile. Dave played very little during our absence. Tom did not play at all that I know of and sold all his horns. He had nice Selmers and wishes he had them back now! Billy played in rock ‘n’ roll groups around DC and then bailed to South Carolina, where he still lives. I knocked around DC and did not really have a band until Mark Smoot and I founded Chainsaw in 1988. In 1994, Steve Feigenbaum convinced us to participate on Unsettled Scores. That was a minor miracle in itself, as the basic tracks were done with non-existent rehearsal during a “Muffins reunion party” at my house in DC. That’s the only track on a released recording that was done in the basement I started in! I have new basement now!
1998... I had been in touch with the boys for awhile and all of a sudden everyone said, “Yeah, let’s play,” so we did a smallish gig in DC in July of ’98 after rehearsing at 9353’s singer’s (Bruce Hellington) home studio. I had recently been doing shows with an instrumental version of that band back then. Some of Loveletter # 1 was done in 1998 at Bruce’s place. That’s what happened!
A few years back at the NEARfest performance, The Muffins featured some extra players, some were the kids of various members of the band. How many shows did you do in that configuration?
That was Ena Scott, Tom’s daughter, and Nathan Berry, her friend, on trumpet. We just brought them on for a few tunes at that show only. Dave’s son Sam played some noise on a saxophone at the very beginning.
On the most recent CD, Loveletter #2, The Muffins were joined by guests Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott, part of the wind section fom Sun Ra’s Arkestra. How did that association come about, and will they continue to work with you on future endeavors?
Well, we were all Sun Ra fans from way back, and had seen them many times even. I just decided to track them down and see if Marshall et al would be interested. The band said yeah, go ahead. A fellow named Peter Hinds put me in touch with them. So, we sent them some music and they (Marshall Allen & Knoel Scott) were interested. They came and played on Double Negative tracks, and we improvised for ages that weekend back in January 2004. The improvisations we did ended up being the basis for Loveletter # 2. The door is open for more collaboration at some point. Marshall even did a Thee Maximalists gig in Philadelphia late last year. Schedules permitting, we will likely work with them again. At 81, Marshall Allen has more energy than a lot of younger people I know.
Back around 2003, Clearlight was scheduled to play at ProgDay. With only a few weeks left before the gig, the band's drummer (Shaun Guerin) suddenly died. Rather than cancel, the band decided to do the gig anyway and you were brought in as the substitute drummer. Can you talk about that some, about the preparations and rehearsals. You were also playing with Paul Whitehead’s Borg Symphony that day.
Well, I believe some of the Progday folks suggested me initially. I wondered why they didn’t just get another drummer in southern California like Coco Roussel or Nick D’Virgilio. Maybe because they did not have to fly me in! Anyway, they Fedex’d me the music the week before the gig and had me learn and play along with Shaun’s drum tracks which was harder to do than one would think because I interpreted the music quite differently, and we do not have similar styles. John Covach, bless ’im, hooked us up at UNC (University of North Carolina) with a complete rehearsal studio with sound and a grand piano, so we did actually get to practice the set the night before the gig. I also got a nice video of just Cyrille playing it all for me on the grand. While we were rehearsing there was this quiet guy in the corner assembling and disassembling a theremin. When I inquired as to his role in this endeavor he introduced himself – Paul Whitehead. My reaction was “?????? wow.” What a character he is. He asked me if I would play with him in an “art piece,” I think he called it, the next day. I take chances all the time and said OK. I thought this would be within the context of, and be part of, the Clearlight set. So, we do the Clearlight set with Shaun’s tracks and it is difficult. I tried to stay out of Shaun’s way, so to speak. I did get to do one tune on my own which I thought worked well, and Cyrille gave me a short solo which I kept tame. It was their gig. Then, the unscheduled Progday gig happened! I had completely forgotten about Whitehead. Just after Clearlight finished I heard a voice behind ask if I was ready and I spun around and did a double take as there was Paul Whitehead in a complete black rubber suit with hoses and other doo-dads hanging off it, a white mask and purple wig. I was unfamiliar with The Borg character and was taken aback. I had not seen that movie! So, Paul had the sound guys play a CD with this wacky industrial shit and he danced around and played my cymbals with a violin bow and the Clearlight sax player and I just bashed and honked along with it. He decided not use the theremin. This lasted maybe 10 minutes. The Progday crew and the crowd did not know what hit them, and this was no pretty prog stuff! I thought it was great. You need a little art thrown at you now and then!
What a trip that Borg Symphony set was. I think the whole audience was just puzzled and stunned.
Yeah the Borg was fun! I was puzzled and stunned!
So just to clarify, during the Clearlight set they had you playing along with drum tracks that had already been recorded? That must have been hell. Had you ever done that before?
Yes, I was playing along with Shaun — or trying to — during the Clearlight set. You couldn't tell? I will never do that sort of thing again. It was hell. I have played with other live drummers before and enjoyed it, and that is a completely different experience when the individual is present. Dave Kerman and I did a double drum thing last year at a gig where we both played with The Red Masque at the NJ Proghouse. That worked well.
Besides gigging with 9353 and Thee Maximalists, what else do you have planned or in the works? Any new Muffins recordings in progress? Also... why can’t The Muffins ever gig anywhere west of the East Coast? You need to get the band out to Baja one of these years.
Well, I am trying to find a label for a Thee Maximalists release at the moment. We have many good recordings of gigs. Yes, The Muffins do have a new recording in progress. This one has a lot of grand piano on it, and will have guest stars. The drums and the bass are done. This is our first entirely direct to disk one (hard disk that is). A well known guitarist and a singer have agreed to work with us on this one. I will not announce them until we have the recordings done though! It will again be different from what we have done. We recorded the drums this time in a large woodshop and they sound just massive. About the West… good question. The answer is I have tried to get us gigs out there, and no luck. We have not played west of Pennsylvania. We played twice at Penn State in the old days thanks entirely to Jeff Greinke, and at NEARfest in 2005. We don’t tour and are limited in our scope when it comes to gigs. We need to plan way in advance. We would love to play out west. Ask the fest folks that question! I had some discussion with one of the West Coast fests a few years back, they contacted me, expressed interest, and then… nothing. I guess if enough folks ask them, we might get invited out there someday. We would love to do Baja also. I attended that this year and it was wonderful. Very well done. Great fest with some of it outdoors and some of it indoors. I have friends in Arizona that had been bugging me for years to check it out, so Deb and I went with them. Great food everywhere there too!
Related artist(s): Fred Frith, The Muffins, Cyndee Lee Rule, Sun Ra, Bill Laswell, Peter Blegvad, Henry Cow, Michael Zentner (ZenLand), Dave Newhouse (Manna / Mirage), Mark Stanley, Chainsaw Jazz, Farquhar, Paul Sears
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