ISSUE #48 / February 21, 2019

Billington / Shippy / Wyche

Billington / Shippy / Wyche / photo by KPL

CCS: Chicago Crowd Surfer
DW: Daniel Wyche
MS: Mark Shippy
BB: Ben Billington

We first encountered the experimental trio Billington / Shippy / Wyche when they opened for Twila Bent at The Empty Bottle last October and they blew us away with their non-linear compositions and the syncopated perfection of Ben Billington’s drumming. Last week they put out their sophomore record The Eventual Warp Cat on local imprint No Index. We caught up with them a couple days after their album release party to talk experimental music and their improvisational motivations.

CCS: A dual guitar and percussion trio is not your typical trio. Could you run us through how this collaboration began and a bit of the background on each of you?

DW: Mark and I first met a few years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party here in Chicago. I’ve been a huge fan of Mark’s playing forever. As far as guitarists go, I think he is just one of the most creative, weird, insightful, and just super fun people on the instrument. A little while after that, another friend was in town on tour, Ricardo Lagamosino (who is a great drummer that I know from Philly who I’m literally about to go see at Thalia Hall tonight because he tours with Lucy Dacas and a bunch of other great people now). At the time, Ricardo was doing this thing where he brought a bunch of recording gear on tour with him and did these improvised collaborations with people, and he asked me if I wanted to do one with Mark Shippy, as a trio, and I was like, fuck yeah. So I think the second time Mark and I met we made a record together.

Ben and I have known each other for a super long time from just being in the more experimental, noisy, and improvised scene in the city. I wanted to do more with Mark and thought that there’s only one drummer in town who makes perfect sense with how weird and energetic all of this is, and that was Ben. Ben’s playing is so raw and weird and full of life, he kind of always pushes himself to the limit when he’s playing, and it’s incredible. I am not sure, but this band might be the first time we played together also. There was really just some amazing chemistry when we all jammed for the first time, and the first show we did back in June of 2015 I think (also at Elastic) was just a night to remember.

BB: I've been long time buddies with Daniel for what seems forever and always talked about getting some music going. Shippy is also an old friend through Cleveland connections i.e. Scarcity of Tanks, but also our first time jammin'!  While I don't know if 2 guitars/drums is that rare, we're definitely making some wild sounds. I honestly never know what's going to happen, and that's just my favorite. Particular life highlight was playing an afternoon set with this trio at the legendary Cropped Out Fest in Louisville a couple years back --- one of the few reasons I can't outright say, "festivals are annoying.” Cropped Out crew are an inspiration.  

CCS: You released your new record, The Eventual Warp Cat, on local experimental label No Index, who also recently put out Twila Bent and Bucket Brigade's latest records. How did that develop, and how important is it to have a label-supporting experimental music in Chicago?  

BB: Drew and Jake are old pals of all of ours --- major music contributors / organizers / curators / supporters here in town. About the best dudes, and it's an honor that they were down to spread our sounds out into the world a bit. Local support and community is pretty much 100% why we do this. We have it pretty damn lucky in Chicago.

CCS: For this record you returned to Elastic Arts to record and used your same engineer, Dave Zuchowski. Do you see it as important for an producer/engineer to develop a relationship with an artist? Does it add to the process or finished product?

DW: I’ve been a curator at Elastic since 2013, and Ben has also been putting on shows and has been a member of the family there for a long time. Elastic is an amazing place and a very close-knit community, mostly around improvised music, but there are great shows there across the board (Sam Lewis, one of our founders, has been bringing amazing hip-hop and dance music into the space for like 20 years, for example). So the reason that we recorded there is kind of a personal one first of all, it’s like home to me for sure, and I think I can say the same for Ben too; we’ve both just put a lot of time and love into the space.

The other reason is completely practical: Elastic is a non-profit, so most of the money we make goes to either keeping the lights on or straight to artists, so we don’t get paid much (and sometimes we just give our own shares to artists at the end of a night). So there’s a kind of tradeoff where we can reserve time in the space during the day for rehearsals or to record. It’s like recording in our own living room in that sense: it’s free and it feels really comfortable and natural to be there.

Dave Zuckowski and his wife Wendy have this amazing little portable but super high-quality recording set up. They have been recording improvised and experimental music in Chicago for years and have worked with most of my favorite people from the city in the last 20+ years. (Actually, I think it was this last session that Dave showed up with a burned CD of a show he recorded of Mark’s old band (U.S. Maple) at the Bottle in like ‘97 or ‘98? Mark do you remember?) Anyway, Dave and Wendy know how to record improvisors, and they do this work out of love for the scene and the music, so it’s affordable for a group like us who is paying everything out of pocket.

BB: Dave is one of the nicest and most humble contributors to the music scene in Chicago --- endlessly documenting some of Chicago's finest. (He’s) great at capturing sounds and has an amazing ear for extreme dynamics.

CCS: How would you describe the new record in three words? It can be musically, thematically, emotive, anything really; your choice.  

DW: “Quiet living room"


CCS: Do your compositions develop out of improv, or do you write separately? How much do you rely upon improvisations on stage?

DW: We are improvisors, and all of this music is improvised. Everything on the last tape (Astral Spirits) came from a long improvised session that we edited down, and we did this one exactly the same way. For this one, I think someone was like, “hey let’s try to be quieter this time,” so we did that. I think that was about as much planning as went into anything. Sometimes before a show we’ll be like, “Ok let’s just rip,” but then we either do what we planned or do something completely different- who knows? All of us do compose music or write songs outside of this context, but this group is about improvisation. Speaking for myself, that’s what I’m most interested in and have been for a long time. Even my own “compositions” on my solo stuff are mostly structured improvisations.

BB: All improvisation. Every time.  Keeps it fun for sure!

CCS: Chicago has been known as an incubator for instrumental experimental music for decades. What are some of the acts (in your opinion) that have never gotten their due, or are there ones now that are being overlooked?

DW: Carol Genetti is absolutely the first person who comes to mind there. Carol is a completely wild vocal improvisor who has been honing and developing these completely bizarre techniques for years, and while she’s luckily been getting a bit more attention lately, (she did that Red Bull gig that Ben also did), she really deserves more credit, especially for being so amazingly innovative. I would say that Jim Baker, (Carol’s partner and probably one of the best piano players on earth), might also fall into this category. I had never heard of Jim before I moved here, and while he plays probably ten times a week in the city, often more than one show a day, I have the sense that he still might not be as well-known as he deserves outside Chicago. Ono was probably in this situation for a long time, but thankfully they are finally getting the recognition they have always deserved.

BB: Hmm. Bands that really messed me up in the best way when I first moved to Chicago and also probably don't get enough credit are Coughs and Binges. Both percussive/heavy bands that really ripped in the early 2000's ---- pretty much all band members from both bands are still completely prolific / favorite artists of mine to this day. The energy runneth over!