Three-Layer Cake, “Stove Top”, Produced by Mike Pride & Mike Watt…
The past year’s lockdown has proved undeniably challenging to improvising musicians who typically thrive on face-to-face interaction. But bassist Mike Watt, drummer/percussionist Mike Pride, and guitarist/banjoist Brandon Seabrook have all built their careers on kicking down the barriers between genres, so why would they let a little pandemic-induced isolation and geographic distance stand in their way? Convening for the first time as Three-Layer Cake, these three dizzyingly inventive artists bake up a long-distance set of singular, boundary-defying collaborations on their combustible debut, Stove Top.
Stove Top is uncategorizable in the best sense of the word, patching together elements of punk, free jazz, new music, no wave, doom metal, dub, Avant-funk, and various subsectors of the experimental in such freewheeling and raucous fashion that the very idea of divvying them up into disparate inspirations seems laughable.
That’s hardly surprising given the credentials involved: Watt, of course, has been rewriting the rules of rock since his ground-breaking days with the legendary Minutemen, through his influential work with fIREHOSE, his idiosyncratic solo career, and his latter-day hook-up with Iggy and the Stooges. Watt has always referred to punk not as a style of music but as a “movement,” one which encompasses a far wider range of exploration than is typically associated with the four-letter word.
“I’ve really outgrown that genre shit,” Watt insists bluntly. “For me, music is music. he movement wasn’t about a style of hair or beats per minute. It was more of a state of mind. So in a way, forty years later, I wanted to somehow signify to that.”
Watt’s younger cohorts embody that lesson. Pride has brought his powerful yet adventurous drumming to work with everyone from improvised music icon Anthony Braxton to punk legends Millions of Dead Cops (MDC), toured arenas opening for comedian Amy Schumer with Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore, and spanned the worlds of modern-jazz, avant-rock, noise and death free jazz with his own ensembles – a roster that includes the jazz quartet From Bacteria To Boys, the 7-drummer installation Drummer’s Corpse, and the piano trio I Hate Work. He is also co-leader of the ensembles Pulverize The Sound (w/ Peter Evans and Tim Dahl) and Period (w/ Charlie Looker and Chuck Bettis).
Seabrook has established himself as one of the most forward-thinking and versatile guitarists of his generation as well as an influential banjo innovator, described by the New York Times as “a man apparently hellbent on earning the title of World’s Least Rustic Banjo Player.” He leads the nuclear trio Seabrook Power Plant, donned “a manic clusterfuck of merciless banjo torture” by the Village Voice, and has been called upon by titans such as Anthony Braxton, Nels Cline, Cecile McLorant Salvant, So Percussion, and Joey Arias for his idiosyncratic physical performance style, hyperreal technique and impeccable articulation.
Three-Layer Cake was spawned from Pride’s guest appearance on Watt’s long-running radio show/podcast, “The Watt From Pedro Show.” As Pride recalls, “We immediately hit it off, so I sent him a message as soon as we finished saying, ‘Hey man, that was really nice. Your energy is great. We should try to do something some time.’ I thought that meant three years, five years down the line if we’re both in the same city. But he immediately responded and had a ton of ideas right off the bat.”
The basic idea for the project is embodied in the name, which came to Watt fully-formed along with the concept itself: Pride would record drum tracks and send them to Watt, who would respond on the bass. As Watt summarizes, “There’s a lot of fucked up things about the Internet, but this is one of the good things: instead of spreading lies you can trade files.”
Watt then tasked Pride with finding the third layer for this improvisational concoction. “I knew Brandon was a big fan of Watt’s and kind of carries a lot of that ethos that Watt carries around in his own work,” Pride continues. “And Brandon is amazing, so I thought it would be musically cool and karmically cool to connect those two guys.”
The guitarist was immediately on board. “I was excited,” Seabrook says. “I discovered the Minutemen in high school, and they were my break from the jazz and classic rock that I had always listened to. They were a big influence that broke open the world of the punk rock movement. They also taught me words like ‘malleable’ and ‘foist’ and ‘fascist’ that I wasn’t used to hearing in Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath songs.”
While Watt insists that he’s far from an experienced jazz player, he’s used the platform of his show to connect with veteran improvisers like Jack Wright and Bob Marsh, and recently hooked up with a band of improvisers including avant-garde mainstays Henry Kaiser and Vinny Golia to reinvent John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in electric form. He also recognizes a spiritual connection between the underground scene from which he emerged and the free jazz realm. “I feel like those guys and the movement are like parallel universes,” Watt says.
Pride creates a tense, scraping drone to open the album on “Beatified, Bedraggled and Bombed,” to which Watt responds with furtive, probing bass interjections before the piece breaks open with Pride’s clamorous beat and Seabrook’s skittering banjo. “Big Burner” erupts with a skronky no wave groove, while “A Durable Quest” is a stealthier animal, built on Pride’s atmospheric brushwork and Watt’s slinky bass.
The order for the round robin was switched for two tracks: Seabrook instigated the spacious, elusive “Shepherds,” which glistens with Pride’s shimmering glockenspiel. Watt’s intricate bass line was the first layer on the album’s closer, “Ballad of the Gobsmacked,” which Pride then transcribed and developed into a sludgy, steamroller beat. Seabrook’s swirling reverse guitar adds a psychedelic haze to “Tiller,” an erratic mélange featuring Pride’s playful marimba melodies, distorted metal crunch and hypnotic banjo runs. “Primary Fuel” alternates blistering blues licks and shimmering strings over Watt’s dub groove, while “Luminous Range – Anxious Valve” builds untethered free jazz excursions into angular funk.
In the end, all three members of the trio were thrilled by the range of territory explored via the genre-averse collaboration. “Watt’s music and energy and life ethos are super important to people like me and Brandon,” Pride says. “So to bring us all together was really exciting. I love the fact that this record is improvised but there are parts of it that are very composed and complex, and that everything still sounds like a rock band. It doesn’t sound like some jazz dudes putting on the rock hat. It sounds like each of us, and there’s a modern fusion of styles.”
“Watt is a very open musician,” Seabrook adds. “Knowing his history, I think this fits into the Watt canon but it’s also unlike anything else he’s been a part of. We all work well together, experimenting with different sounds and taking different approaches. Recording at home, we had a lot of time to try stuff out.”
And finally, Watt described the bicoastal collaboration as an ideal response to the restrictions imposed by quarantine. “This record is kind of a diary entry for this sitch,” he says. “When I look back and hear this, it won’t be all bad shit about no gigs and wearing masks.”