(Originally published in Gibraltar Webzine #1, Jan 31, 2001)
You may not have heard of artist David Bagsby. He's not exactly a "household name", even in Progressive Rock circles. But if you haven't, you're missing out on some of the most incredible Progressive Rock being recorded today. David is a difficult man to categorize. His solo work spans a huge range of styles, from Progressive Rock to Neo-Classical compositions to experimental Electronic musics to completely insane Country/Western ditties (that's where the "Madman" part comes in). And you can find all those styles on just one CD! In addition, David has teamed up with other great musicians like Kurt Rongey to form Xen, and is working with guitarist Ron Jarzombek of Spastic Ink on their new album. What makes this guy tick? Let's find out in this, the first Gibraltar Webzine interview!
GEPR: Hi, David, how's it going?
Bagsby: Very well indeed, thanks.
GEPR: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your musical background? Were you classically trained?
Bagsby: I have been playing since 1975; professionally since 1980. I got an A.A. in Music from Tulsa Junior College and had a few composition classes at the University of Tulsa when I was working there as a librarian.
GEPR: Did you concentrate on composition or performance?
Bagsby: Composition was my emphasis. I also played in all sorts of bands from Progressive/Jazz to Punk, Western Swing, Reggae, 50's/60's ... and assorted Orchestral deals with the Tulsa Philharmonic and a variety of Choral groups. I felt that to understand a style I should actually do it. The wonderful thing about music is that it doesn't matter what you learn, you can apply it to anything ... like Chopin's "Economy of Motion" idea ... that's something you can use in any genre or with any instrument.
GEPR: So, you started off in Tulsa, went to school there, and did a couple of CD's in tribute to Tulsa. But now you're in Kansas. Why the move?
Bagsby: I was born and raised in Tulsa and moved to Lawrence, Kansas this year. As a joke, I dedicated my Jethro Tulsa CD to a girl I dated 17 years ago (who I hadn't seen since) because she was a Tull fan. I figured it would be like a time delayed punchline. Anyway she contacted me and I moved up here. We're to be married next year in Scotland ... so be careful, the Butterfly Effect works! [That was] the point of migrating [to Kansas] ... not just to be closer to Kerry Livgren.
GEPR: Wow! Congratulations! So what are you working on now?
Bagsby: I'm now working at the University of Kansas library during the day and have several projects going at night. I just finished up some stuff for Ron Jarzombek's 2nd Spastic Ink CD. I'm also finalizing Translator, which is a double CD utilizing the same approach as The Aviary except instead of orchestrated birdsongs, this time it's land/sea animals & locales.
GEPR: Speaking of The Aviary, I've wondered about how you did that CD. How did you go about translating bird song into the compositions we hear on the CD?
Bagsby: The Aviary and the upcoming Translator CDs were done using a pitch-to-MIDI converter which changes the actual "songs" into MIDI. I act mainly as an orchestrator on these projects, since the field recordings act as the music. I do no quantizing or any other modification to the pitches/rhythms/velocities. It's like digitizing a photograph then changing the colors. I am trying to make these natural soundscapes more overt. I have a lot of material in this vein which I will continue work on as my equipment gets better.
GEPR: In the introduction to this interview, I called you an "Avant Garde Progressive Rock Neo-Classical Experimental Electronic Music Keyboard Wizard/Genius/Madman" ...
Bagsby: ... the Madman part made me laugh aloud (maniacally).
GEPR: The photo of you [at the top of this article] holding a parrot and a guitar indicates that even this is only part of your musical range. You've released two CDs that are tributes to your home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma [Squid Pro Quo: The Tulsa Project and Jethro Tulsa: The Magic Empire Strikes Back]. You do everything on these CD's from Progressive Rock to Neo-Classical to Country and Western comedy songs. Why is it that your musical interests are so varied?
Bagsby: I like all sorts of things; from cartoon greats Raymond Scott & Carl Stalling to soundtrack composers like Jerry Goldsmith & Leonard Rosenman ... go listen to the soundtrack for Planet of the Apes or Fantastic Voyage ... if you dare! I've always been a fan of harmony and keyboards so I guess it's inevitable that I would like Progressive Rock. I was indoctrinated in the 70's with Gentle Giant, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Tull, Steely Dan, ELP ... I suppose they make an appearance in one form or another ... but as Zappa said, "without deviation, there can be no progress".
GEPR: Anybody who could actually record "Thrifty Nickel" must be at least a little bit mad! (Note: This is a tongue-in-cheek country/western tune sung by a guy who advertised for a wife in the Thrifty Nickel ... you can imagine the kind of response he got. Or if you can't, check out David's Jethro Tulsa CD).
Bagsby: Thifty Nickel is a leftover from my days as a Stand Up Comic. I'm a big fan of Zappa, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer and the like, so there's no escaping your roots.
GEPR: Are the Tulsa CDs just for people from Tulsa, or can anyone enjoy them?
Bagsby: The Tulsa CD's are mainly instrumental so anyone could enjoy them. Mainly it's just the song titles and graphics that would require a Tulsa upbringing to get all the inside jokes. You don't have to know Kobaïan to enjoy Magma, why should this be any different?
GEPR: Has the response to these CDs been encouraging, disappointing, or are people just baffled?
Bagsby: These projects were a good way to clean out the closet of loads of things that didn't really fit anywhere else album wise. The response is as expected; did well in Tulsa but outsiders can't seem to get beyond the graphics.
GEPR: I've noticed that some of your releases are on CDR and some are on regular CDs. How do you decide whether it would be better to make a run of regular CD's or just use CDR's? Does it have to do with the volumes you expect to sell?
Bagsby: Yes, exactly. Most things are very experimental and very diverse so it's hard to make any sort of name in the field because everyone expects you to do one thing and stick to it. You can't release anything without someone trying to put you into some box or catagory. Some folks only like German Electronic Music and others only will accept Mellotrons which is fine but a bit too thin of a definition of music for me. I enjoy inventive structure and sound design. I like Todd Rundgren, XTC, 12 Rods & Self ... they are firmly rooted in Pop but have great harmonic ideas and I'm amazed they actually got a break to be honest.
GEPR: Transphoria is about to be re-released on Mellow Records. I loved that CD! What instruments did you play on this CD? I also understand that some parts of it were recorded live?
Bagsby: The Steinway piano on "Stranglefsky Part C" is live, but the rest of the CD is all my playing; guitars and all except the afore-mentioned piano (played by Candy Gaffen) and some poetry read by Jenny Labow. The rest is keyboards or samplers and guitars.
GEPR: Was Transphoria made before or after the Tulsa CDs?
Bagsby: This CD, as with all my work, evolved over a long period of time. I write many different types of music so I won't release anything for a year or two and then put out 4 CDs in rapid succession. This makes marketing a nightmare. Maybe one day I will cover enough niche markets to actually make a better go of it. The reason I do CDRs is so I'm not up to my eyeballs in inventory. All I have to do is buy blank discs and make them up as the demand dictates. This also gives me freedom to release anything I want even if only three people like it.
(Left) David Bagsby and Kurt Rongey of XEN.
Although this is a staged photo of them rolling the dice to determine the next
note in the score, it does hint at some of their composition techniques.
Bagsby: I met Kurt running sound for his prog band The Choice years ago. I found out later that they were interested in having me play guitar for them but the band fell apart and I was playing in a (Gasp!) Country band when this came down. I didn't know how to contact those guys and eventually ran into Kurt again at an Adrian Belew concert a few years later. He invited me to a prog group he was in called Crunchy Frog which also featured Bill Pohl on guitar. In a few months, I was the Lead Singer/Bass Player/Keyboardist for the Frog. We did a lot of original stuff with a goodly helping of UK, Genesis, Holdsworth, Dregs ...
GEPR: How did you decide to work together in XEN?
Bagsby: Kurt went off to school in London so the band fell apart and XEN started up when Kurt was back for Christmas break. He came by and we just started recording stuff with nothing in mind other than to have fun. Eventually we had enough stuff to release 3 cassettes. The original concept for XEN was to be a musical setting of Max Ernst's collage novel, "The 100 Headless Woman" ... we wanted to do a Wagnerian scale piece that would take maybe 10 years to complete and run maybe 20 discs at completion ... hey, shoot for an elephant, get a camel.
GEPR: So XEN is strictly a studio band?
Bagsby: We did a couple of live shows; once opening for the Legendary Pink Dots. Actually Master of Night was supposed to be a live CD, that's why you have some drastically re-orchestrated tunes from the first XEN CD on there; but everytime I would try to arrange a gig, the club would go out of business ... still wonder why I'm not in Tulsa anymore?
GEPR: The photo of you and Kurt shows you rolling the dice. Did you really use dice rolls as a composition aid?
Bagsby: That photo was totally staged, however some tunes were done using Triominoes as a generative device and other very obscure methods including Fibonacci Series, square/cube roots, stochastics and playing cards.
Bagsby: Kurt's busy with his family/job/U.R.R. right now, but we've discussed doing a Tolkein based Prog CD with Bill Pohl so some day we'll make some headway on that. I'm sure XEN will return in some extropian form someday.
GEPR: Any other projects going on at the moment?
Bagsby: Also in the works is production on my brother Steve's solo CD, experiments with humanly impossible rhythmic hierarchies (a CD re-release of Bizaria, previously available only on cassette), infinitely variable filtering systems, and I'm having software developed to explore Euclidian Space & perfect tuning systems. Also, Hydrophony will be revised/released with new material soon. Ephemeron, which is also reviewed in the GEPR, will be revised with new material along with the original cassette set list.
GEPR: Your Tulsa CD's are released under various names (Squid Pro Quo and Jethro Tulsa). Are there any other pseudonyms you use that we should know are actually David Bagsby?
Bagsby: There's Snap-On Voles; this is my brother Steve & I doing cartoon jazz. And The Smurks; think of an ill tempered version of the Chipmunks ... not for the squeamish. Also Eden Musee: mainly acoustic prog with violin/guitars/Chapman Stick ... I hope to do a live recording. I also have an album of gothic symphonic terror music under the name "Vlad 3" that is in production.