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Sunday, November 19, 2023

Bruce Gallanter - Sunday Interview

Bruce Gallanter. Photo by John Rogers

We take a slight detour this weekend with the Sunday Interview. Instead of a musician, we asked Bruce Gallanter, proprietor of the indefatigable Downtown Music Gallery in New York City, to answer a slightly modified set of the questions. Please see an interview about the store itself here and we promise to be back next week with our regular programming. 

1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

Improvised music has its own language which crosses many borders. It is one of the few examples of what freedom is really about. Every in-store concert of live music has moments of magic and transcendence. The weekly sets at DMG are often the highlight of my week and I look forward to giving the musicians a chance to express themselves and the audience some inspiration or food for thought. Something amazing happens almost every week at the store and I am proud to create a space for this.

2. Which historical musician/composer do you admire the most?

Actually it is a tie between Frank Zappa and John Zorn. I bought the Mothers of Inventions’ Freak-Out! album in the summer of 1967 at the age of 13. It changed my life . Although the Mothers were considered to be a “comedy band”, they took themselves seriously. I realized that I didn’t fit in with what most of my peers cared about and the Mothers often made fun of all of the hypocrisy of our so-called Great Society. This is also the beginning of what would be called progressive rock and jazz/rock, as well as adding dada humor, modern classical, progressive philosophy and many avant-garde influences like music concrete. I started to buy classical records like Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok, John Cage & Stockhausen, thanks to interviews with Mr. Zappa when I was still pretty young. Uncle Meat (1968) remains a favorite of mine.

I met John Zorn in December of 1979 thanks to Fred Frith who had just moved to NY as Henry Cow had just broken up. Although it took some time to figure out where Mr. Zorn was coming from. He became my favorite alto saxist, avant composer, game-piece inventor and multi-bandleader. He remains a longtime inspiration today, 44 years later. He is also the most prolific composer/musician that I know and I admire him deeply. I feel honored to be a friend of his as well.

3. If you could resurrect a musician so that they could release more music, who would it be?

Thomas Chapin. Died too young at 39 in the middle of his ever ascending career, from leukemia. He was one the greatest alto saxists I’ve ever heard. He could play both completely inside and swing his tush off and he could play completely outside, as ferocious as any ‘Free Jazz’ giant that anyone could mention. When he died in 1998, I was devastated. We were good friends and I helped promote him in different ways. I still miss him dearly and smile when I hear his music. There is a large picture of him at the store which was given to me by his widow after we organized a tribute gig for him. He is DMG's patron saint.

4. What was the album that surprised you the most both as to music and as to sales?

Good question. King Strut by Peter Blegvad. I’ve also felt that Peter Blegvad (from Slapp Happy, Henry Cow & Golden Palominos) was one of the greatest songwriters ever, both musically and especially lyrically. Considering that Mr. Blegvad was a member of Henry Cow, he is often considered to be a “prog guy”. Yet, his melodies are pretty normal rock songs with brilliant lyrics. This record came out in the UK, wasn’t really promoted and sank without a trace. The title track itself, “King Strut” is a perfect song that still sweeps me away whenever I hear it.

Another fave is Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle album from 1967. I think it is brilliant but was completely ignored at the time. I could give you a long list of buried treasures which still don't get the recognition they rightly deserve.

5. Do you think the CD will have a comeback similar to the one vinyl has had?

I certainly hope so. As much as I love the way early analog vinyl sounds on a good system, I appreciate all music formats and each one has good things about it. I own more CD’s (50,000) than LP’s (20,000) and still listen mostly CD’s at home & in the store. CD sales continue to become less, especially over the past few months (November of 2023 at present). My store is one of the few left in NYC that still carries more CDs than any other format.

6. Are you interested in popular music and - if yes - what music/artist do you particularly like?

I grew up listening to popular rock music in the 1960’s so it is always close to my heart. Many folks think that I only listen to avant-garde, progressive rock & jazz, etc. Here’s a list of some of the more popular musicians/bands that I still like: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Wilco, Radiohead, Spiritualized, Jesse Sykes, Fela Kuti, Rolling Stones (60’s) and Little Feat. I stopped listening to the radio many years ago so I rarely hear any contemporary pop music except for my Seniors dance/exercise class where I heard a song from Taylor Swift that I like called "Shake it Off".

7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Just take better care of myself, better diet, more sleep, more exercise and find someone to love.

8. Are you proud of the fact that you have managed to run a record store that only sells avant-garde music for such a long time and (if yes) why?

Very proud! I have long been committed to promoting the many types of music that I cherish, some very avant-garde and obscure and some relatively popular. I thrive at knowing about more bands and musicians than anyone else that I’ve met and still go to live concerts very often. I try to listen to at least one CD or LP every day (night) that I’ve never heard before. Every disc is like a letter or story from someone, somewhere who is showing me their story or view.

9. Which album (from any musician) have you listened to the most in your life?

When I was at college (1972-1976), I had a few roommates and we listened to around a dozen albums each night: Robert Wyatt, the Mothers of Invention, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Hatfield & the North… Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’ I’ve listened to more than any other album and it remains my favorite ever. I often weep when I hear it since I know that Wyatt wrote it while recovering from his famous accident, falling out of a window and breaking his back. There is quite a bit of pain in his voice.
I also have favorite songs that I’ve listened to over & over: one summer I listened to “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse every night. There is something about this song that really touches me, Neil has a way of combining personal mythology with the tale of pyramids in Mexico. “They built up with their bare hands what we still can’t do today”.

I got a promo CD in 2002 from Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Thereafter called Reckless Burning. Something about it, so depressing yet so real, really touched me. I listened to it every night for a year or so. It helped me to unwind after a day working at the store. I became a big fan and caught Ms. Sykes & her band a handful of times. Four records in 10 years, all great, each one heavier than the last one. The last one is called Marble Son from 2011 and she rocks hard, it is one of the greatest roots rock/psych albums of the 2000’s. She broke up with her boyfriend/lead guitarist/song collaborator after that record and quit music. Jeez, what a loss! I just found out this week that she is in a new band called Third Mind with Dave Alvin & two members of Camper Van Beethoven. Hooray!!! Can't wait to hear these!

10. What are you listening to at the moment?

Aside from reviewing 5-10 discs every week for the DMG newsletter, I keep pushing myself to try many types of music: dark metal, country, folk, modern classical, reggae & dub, psych - old and new, lots of different guitar music: Duck Baker, John Fahey, Richard Thompson, Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Mary Halvorson, Ava Mendoza, Tisziji Munoz… 

Starting during the pandemic, I needed to find something to make me feel better, less alone and isolated. As a longtime Grateful Dead fan, I discovered a website called “Archive.Org” which fans donate concerts tapes to. A guy named Matt Vernon set up the Grateful Dead section of this site which now has 2,000 Dead gigs which anyone can stream! During the pandemic, I went back to the beginning (Dec of 1965) and I listened to every Dead gig in chronological order, usually one hour a night. I sing along and dance to the Dead every night and it makes me feel good to be alive. I met Matt Vernon sitting next to me at The Stone a few years ago so we are now good friends. He is very open minded like me so we go to gigs often as well. I am currently listening to the Europe '72 tour (22 gigs in April & May of 1972) for the third time since I really long the way the Dead keep evolving every night!

11. What artist outside music inspires you?

I appreciate many of the arts. I still read poetry as often as I can: Dylan Thomas, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan are my faves. I also go to museums from time to time and remember watching Milford Graves & John Zorn playing in front of a large painting by Jackson Pollock. The free/form improv and painting fit together like a hand in glove. If I had more time, I would check out more of the different arts since it takes time to understand each piece.

12. Have you ever considered being a musician yourself? 

I took some lessons and played rock drums in high school in a few bands mostly for fun. I didn’t practice enough, so some of my friends ended up as good musicians. I’ve played hand percussion ever since and have been to many jam sessions with different friends. I also used to write poetry more often and have read at poetry readings on occasion. I had a band in the 1980’s called Suburban Bohemia in which I read poetry and played hubcaps with different musicians all playing freely. We still play once every 5 years or so when I am inspired to come up with a concept or story.


Doug S. said...

Bruce is an all-time mensch to whom we all owe a great deal.

Martin Schray said...

What a wonderful man. I like the way he addresses the musicians as Mr and Ms, it shows some real respect. The way he talks about Thomas Chapin sent a shiver down my spine. I hope the DMG continues to survive. It's a miracle that it has existed for such a long time.

Jason Weiss said...

Bravo, for throwing some very well-deserved attention to Bruce! He has long been an ideal guide to vast realms of adventurous music, for he is always open, kind, generous, devoted. In his humble and tireless way, he has helped keep the music flourishing. Thank goodness Bruce is there, otherwise we would all have had to figure out some kind of way to invent him!