Interview with Wasteland Jazz Unit

Over the past two decades, I have had the pleasure of seeing many concerts of varying styles. Sonic Youth (Dirty era), at the time, was the loudest live experience for me. I was a teenager attending a Lollapalooza concert in Charlestown, WV when I first saw SY. Through the mountainous PA system, we all had our audible palate cleansed that night. Years later, I still remember a girl with her hands over her ears stumbling through the crowd away from the stage.

Then, one night, I saw two guys set up in an abandoned bank turned DIY space in Baltimore, MD. The setup seemed simple: two guys, two horns, a stack of amps each. A short greeting was followed by the loudest set I have ever heard. Even with earplugs, it was intense. Both flailed back and forth with intent like they were trying to force their lungs through their instruments. Wild combinations of notes and sounds, combined with feedback, left the faces (and ears) of the audience stunned.

Fifteen minutes into the set, one of their amps seemed to blow; leaving a constant ring like a heart monitor flatlining. The two stood facing eachother with their eyes closed. Even with amplification gone, Jon Lorenz continued to play acoustically. Jon Rich decided to riff around the feedback, as if it was part of the set. I was sold.

Listening to Wasteland Jazz Unit play, and the name itself, I feel like you guys would be the common "jazz" sound for post-apocolyptic times. How did you guys develop the style you play?

John Lorenz: Throwing contact mics in horns, turning our amps to 11, and an obsession with biting reeds and feedback tones. Not really going for post-apocolyptic or anything just playing the music we wanted to hear.

John Rich: No heads.

Do you do much in the way of manipulating your horns through effects pedals?

JL: None at all. The only effects we use are the ones already on our amps. Distortion, basically. Pedals can take away from the focus of things. We've heard a lot of jams completely ruined because of unnecessary effects. Either just awful sounds or too much focus on the "effects" than the sounds being created. Some people have this idea that "experimental music" is all about manipulating sounds but ya gotta make interesting sounds first, and then think about manipulating them. So yeah from the start we just said "Fuck using pedals" and focused more on the initial sounds we were making. I did just buy a volume pedal though so WJU officially has one pedal.

JR: No effects. Keep it simple, keep it raw.

How did you guys meet up, and start WJU?

JL: Me and John had met on several occasions over the years at shows and what not. At some point, we both figured out that we both played horns and were into free jazz and what not so it just made sense. John came up with the name before we even played together. When we first played together I showed John this idea that I had been messing around with using contact mics inside the horns and John said "yeah let's do that and turn our amps up all the way." So yeah it basically developed from that. I think our first show was in early April of 07 with Ryan Jewell and George Steeltoe Ensemble.

Do you guys come from any kind of a traditional jazz background?

JL: Not at all. I have no training what so ever. My sister was in band in high school and dropped out. She didn't need the sax anymore so I decided to take it back to college with me even though my parents wanted to sell it or something. They actually were kind of mad and wanted me to give it back but once they found out I was actually making "music" with it they were cool.

JR: I played clarinet in elementary and junior high band, but that's the extent of it. Don't really remember anything except how to blow "properly" but I guess that's all that really matters.

So, what kind of background do you guys come from?

JL: I started playing guitar when I was 13 or so. Started playing sax when I was 20 maybe. Grew up on Sonic Youth and Pavement and the typical 90's indie rock stuff. Got more into free jazz stuff when I started playing sax. Heard Brotzmann's "Machine Gun" and that pretty much explains everything.

JR: Can't remember... listened to a lot of Neil Young.

Live, you guys have a blistering sound; volume and chaos. What effect does your music have on you in a live setting? What impact are you hoping for on an audience?

JL: Our live sets are usually pretty chaotic but sometimes our sets change according to the room or the vibe. Live sets are fun cause people actually get to see the physical side of things so we try to play that up a bit more than we might on our recordings. We want it to be a physical experience. We want people to feel our hands hitting the keys, to feel our teeth vibrating against the reeds. That sort of thing.

JR: I just want to make people happy and enjoy themselves.

How do you identify yourselves, categorically? I've heard you described as "Noise Jazz," "Death Jazz," etc.

JL: I probably wouldn't even use the word "Jazz." I think we try to be as far away from the word "Jazz" as possible but that obviously comes with the territory of playing horns which is why we used it in our name. We might as well just play along. Yeah, we're a "Jazz" band.

JR: Death and noise make us sound so negative. I think of our music in a more positive way. Full of joy and happiness.

How often do you play in front of more traditional jazz crowds? You recently played a jazz fest in DC. What was the reaction like there?

JL: I think that was pretty much our first time playing for that type of crowd. In Cincinnati, we for the most part only play gigs that we put on. There isn't really much of a freaky jazz scene here. The New Atlantis Fest in DC was a lot of fun. I think we cleared at least half of the room but the people that stuck around we're very excited about what they heard. We didn't make it the first day but we heard the same thing happened for Weasel Walter's set with Darius Jones and Tom Blancarte. A good chunk of people didn't like it but the people that did like it really liked it and bought a lot of merch and stuff. I think to certain people in that "Jazz" scene bands with high energy are a breathe of fresh air.

JR: DC was a lot of fun. I never want to bum anyone out and we never really get asked to play jazz gigs in town. I think when people hear us they immediately know what they're getting into and will either stay or go. I guess it's nice to have a "yes or no" sound.

What is your involvement with the Art Damage Lodge? Will you give us a little background into the venue?

JL: We both run the space. We started it in October of '07. It's in an old Masonic Lodge. The name comes from the Art Damage radio show, which we now host, that was started here in Cincinnati, in 1985. The show was a big influence on us and has a lot to do with the history of experimental music in Cincinnati. We definitely wanted to keep that history alive and have our own place in Cincinnati to keep the weird music alive.

For those who don't know, run the site Wounded Slug. Give us a little background on the site.

JL: Wounded Slug is a blog that I do that focuses on weird music of Cincinnati. I mainly post videos of shows at Art Damage Lodge and around town but I also post downloads to out of print records, old footage of stuff, weird Cincinnati related videos. I started the blog basically because when I moved here I would hear about these weird 80's Cincinnati bands like 11,000 Switches and BPA and what not and could never hear them. Our local record store ended up putting out a compilation of some of these weird Cincinnati bands so I finally got to hear a lot of them but there is still a lot of stuff that people don't even know about so I'm trying to put everything in one place so anyone who wants to know has a place to find these things.

Is Rub Don't Blot still operational?

JL: Yeah. I guess. We haven't put anything out on it in a while but the label kind of exists as a name for either of us to use for whatever we wanna do. I'm actually gonna start a more serious label to go along with the Wounded Slug blog. The first thing I have planned is releasing a series of double cassette boxes with each including four Cincinnati artists. There are a lot of people in Cincinnati that don't really put out music so I'm trying to collect a lot of these people with some other more active names for people outside of Cincinnati to hear.

Jon, I know you have Early Tunnels going on, outside of WJU. What are some other projects you guys have going?

JL: Yeah I have Early Tunnels that I do with Pete Fosco. Me and John are in a group called the Ohio Unsemble with Ryan Jewell, Jason Zeh, and Matthew Reis (Teeth Collection.) That is more focused on the quiet side of things. We also do Wasteland Jazz Ensemble occasionally which is us and various other members.

If someone hears you, and wants to know about other likeminded groups; what are some recommendations you make?

JL: Well, I think the obvious answer to this is Borbetomagus. Antoine Chessex's stuff is along the same lines.

JR: The Crystals, The Ronettes and Shirelles


Top 10 Albums of 2010

Of course, tastes and opinions vary.

1. Ghastly City Sleep "MOONDRIFTS"

Halfway through this album, I realized that there were a LOT of other indie/post-something-or-another/etc bands doing this type of thing that were in all of the popular music magazines; getting mainstream radioplay; making videos. The thing is...Ghastly City Sleep are doing this thing (whatever you want to call it) BETTER than those bands. There are so many layers to this album that truly make this one of the few music releases deserving of the adjective: EPIC. Somewhere, Radiohead, Deerhunter, and the like are sweating it.

2. LA Vampires meets Zola Jesus

This is one album that I have listened to a ridiculous amount of times. LA Vampires (ex-Pocahaunted) and Zola Jesus work together to create an after-hours, everyone is drunk and/or high, sweating, dancing, and the lighting comes straight out of the bar party scene in Fire Walk With Me. Dark, reverb drowning layering of vocals mixed with dub and ambience... I'm doing a horrible job at trying to describe this. This is the sound of two people meeting up and creating at the right time in their lives.

3. SLICES "Cruising"

When someone tells me about a band that I should check out, and they describe them as "punk" or "hardcore," I tend to forget about the recommendation and move on. For some reason I listened to Virginia based artist Sam Vanagas when he recommended the band SLICES. Thank you, Sam. There's a lot of bands doing this noisy, raw kind of mutation of punk (for lack of a better term), but SLICES completely blow me away. "Cruising" is the second most listened to album of the year for me. The closest thing to a modernized Black Flag that I've found.

4. Grinderman "2"

I am not a fan of Nick Cave's previous work. It has never really impressed me. Grinderman is the exception. "2" is a great marriage of noise-rock, blues, and even a touch of soul. Excellent songwriting. I had to make myself take it out of the stereo.

5. The Roots "How I Got Over"

In a year of weak beats, synths, and vocoder vocals trying to pass of as hip-hop, The Roots, with their full live band, showed everyone how things should be done: with heart and sincerity. Philadelphia's own knows exactly who they are, what they're strengths are, and they accentuate it to the fullest. Black Thought evens breaks out, stylistically, more with his quiet, gruff soulful crooning mixing in and out with the ebb and flow of headstrong lyricism and delivery that makes his world-reknown. Perfect album with the exception of the last two tracks.

6. Relay For Death "Birth of an Older, Much Uglier Christ"

What do you get when you take twin sisters, put them through a deprivation medical experiment, and let them take various objects, video footage, and recording equipment along for the ride? ANSWER: The best, creeped out sound/noise/experimental album of the year. This is the album I've been waiting for. Less look-at-all-of-the-equipment-I-have wanking; more original sense of creative direction.

7. Cut Chemist "Sound of the Police"

One DJ, some turntables, an encyclopedic library of vinyl spanning music from around the globe passed through a hip-hop filter; straight to tape. Even this doesn't sound like your thing, you'll end liking it, anyway. Good music is good music, regardless.

8. White Suns "Mourning Chamber"

Three guys from Brooklyn, NY destroying guitars, drums, mics, and you. Period.

9. US Christmas "Run Thick In The Night"

US Christmas expand their ever-changing lineup to include two drummers and a violin player this time around. USX have finally found the perfect balance between the faster, more raw material of early recordings, and the spacious, trip folk freakout of their last album, "Eat The Low Dogs." The clear, precise production of "Run Thick In The Night" allows the listener to finally hear every little nuance lost in the mix of previous albums, and the contributions of the new players added. Simply put, an impressive album.

10. Body Cop "s/t"

So, I had heard this buzz about a DC band called, Body Cop. Interesting name. Watched some live clips online, and decided to give the tape a listen. First couple of listens, I wasn't sure if I liked them, or if they were just another overhyped band. Then, I started reading the lyrics while listening to the album. Now, having listened to the album many, many times... I can honestly say that this is an intense album.

They claim a love for early-SWANS, but I don't like SWANS. However, Body Cop deliver something that is genuinely disturbing. The music is noisy, raw, and crushing; but not in a chugga-chugga metal fashion. It sounds more like a person's life is failing, and the vocals amplify this feeling. Even now, I still don't feel like I've picked up on everything there. I just hope that these guys and gal are completely sincere because it feels dead serious.