Thinking Plague to North Texas Come (In January)
L-R, standing: Robin Chestnut (drums), Mike Johnson (leader-guitar), Dave Willey (bass)
L-R, sitting: Mark Harris (reeds), Elaine di Falco (vocals, accordion, keys), Bill Pohl (guitar)
It takes a special kind of dedication to make a career playing challenging, non-commercial music. Since the '90s, Bill Pohl had been a prophet without honor in his hometown of Fort Worth. A preternaturally fleet and fluid guitarist, he co-led the progressive rock band The Underground Railroad with pianist-drummer Kurt Rongey, recording two albums, doing a modest amount of touring, and playing local gigs to small but devoted audiences. His major local impact was on his collaborators (including Big Mike Richardson, Henry the Archer's Matt Hembree, Magnatite's Sam Damask, and The Cosmic Trigger's Tyrel Choat) and his guitar students. In 2012, after careful thought and consideration, he followed his high school sweetheart to Colorado...and found his tribe.
The opportunity came in the form of an invitation from guitarist-composer Mike Johnson to join Thinking Plague, the venerable and venerated prog band Johnson formed with bassist-drummer Bob Drake in 1982. Over the last three decades, Johnson and his revolving cast of players (28 at this writing) have had a complex and convoluted history, creating a body of work that spans six albums (so far), with another in the works.
Asked (by phone, from his home in Colorado) what has sustained him through his band's lengthy trajectory, Johnson said, "Some kind of compulsion or insanity. I grew up in a time when it seemed that a person could do serious music and make a living. Having a full-time day career [now retired, the Navy veteran worked for years as a community college counselor] and the band required me to have two different personas and two different stores of energy."
His band's uncompromising sound, inspired by modern symphonic composers like William Schuman, has invited comparisons to the British band Henry Cow, whose similar stance set them apart from the more mainstream prog bands of the '70s. That connection was cemented by Thinking Plague's third album (after two self-released recordings), In This Life, which was released in 1989 on Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler's label, and included the participation of his bandmate, guitarist Fred Frith, on one cut.
While on a brief East Coast tour in 1988, Johnson said, "We went to visit Fred Frith in his tiny apartment on the top of a building [in New York City]. He told us, 'If you want to do this, you have to give up everything else in life.' I realized that the window of opportunity in my life for me to do this was closed." That realization proved to be liberating. "I thought, 'It's never going to happen. I'll just do what I do. This has given me great satisfaction and purpose."
On In This Life, ensemble dynamics are emphasized over solo pyrotechnics, capped by the untutored, punkish vocal stylings of Susanne Lewis (who beat out Jill Sobule of "I Kissed A Girl" fame for the gig). In parts of the album, the confluence of Mark Harris' reeds and Shane Hotle's keyboards recalls Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, while elsewhere, African and Balinese percussion colors the sound.
"I'm a determinist or positivist when it comes to aesthetics," Johnson said. "Everyone's music is not equally good. I see it as a hierarchical evolution that transcends time. The more effort the listener invests, the greater the reward should be. I want to utilize more dimensions -- of dynamics, of meter. My brain paints musical events. I follow my head where it goes, and imagine the music from the top down. My mission is to raise the level of rock music, to put more content in the form."
In 1996, bassist Dave Willey and vocalist Deborah Perry -- from Boulder-based outfit Hamster Theatre, with whom Johnson had also played -- joined Thinking Plague. Two years later, the band began a relationship with Maryland-based indie Cuneiform Records. Their Cuneiform albums In Extremis (1998) and A History of Madness (2003) are fan favorites, widely hailed as classics. On the former, Dave Kerman's drums give the music a hard-edged attack, while on the latter, the presence of ex-Sleepytime Gorilla Museum drummer David Shamrock allows more textural variety, with solo features for Matt Mitchell's piano and Harris' saxophone.
Cuneiform also released Early Plague Years (2000), a remastered reissue of the first two self-released Thinking Plague albums, and most recently, Decline and Fall (2012). That album, which fulminates lyrically against societal malaise, introduces another exceptionally adept singer, Elaine di Falco (a multi-instrumentalist whose previous collaborators include Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper), and drummer Robin Chestnut (who plays on one track and has since joined the permanent lineup). Decline and Fall's gleaming, high definition sound contrasts starkly with dystopian lyrics like "eat more / think less / drink more / sleep less / die more" ("Sleeper Cell Anthem").
A daunting development for listeners searching for Thinking Plague's music: in the last few years, a number of their CDs have gone out of print for the first time. The only ones still being pressed and distributed are their last disk, Decline and Fall, and the recently reissued In This Life. Internet sellers demand premium prices for Thinking Plague CDs. "It's hard for labels to make a profit, when downloads don't make enough money," said Johnson. "Our CDs sell, but it's only a trickle. People don't pay to download albums, only single tracks, and there are pirates in Russia and other places where you can't touch them, making large files available for free, or charging as though they were legitimate entities."
Earlier this year, Thinking Plague ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund studio expenses for the recording of a new album, which is scheduled for release on Cuneiform in September 2016. "Tracking has already started, at home, for the guitar parts," said Johnson. "We want to use a really good studio to make the acoustic instruments -- piano, drums, reeds -- sound gorgeous." While still uncertain who'll be working on the album mix, Johnson said, "We want to make the mix interesting, and sort of psychedelic, but with authentic acoustic textures."
On January 10, they'll make a rare visit to North Texas, performing at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff with free jazz/heavy rock juggernaut Unconscious Collective, which teams brothers Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez from Yells At Eels with another astonishing guitarist, Gregg Prickett (They Say The Wind Made Them Crazy, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society). (Wheels within wheels: Pohl has made guest appearances with Yells At Eels both live and on their albums Pictogram and Geografia.)
Unlike earlier, bicoastal lineups, the current Thinking Plague, said Johnson, "is local -- or at least within 70 miles. This way, we can rehearse at least somewhat regularly, and have some polish when we perform." Band members' commitments can make practice schedules sporadic, which necessitates homework, Johnson explained: "Elaine is using a Helicon TC pitch shifter to create her own background vocals -- sometimes up to four harmonies, which she 'plays' while singing. Bill is playing keyboard parts on guitar, some of which I wrote charts for, some of which I let him figure out."
For the Texas tour -- which includes dates at the Church of the Friendly Ghost in Austin and Rudyard's in Houston, as well as the Kessler (with a San Antonio date still in the works) -- Johnson promises a varied set, with two or three songs from each of Thinking Plague's albums except the first two, and a couple of as-yet-unrecorded pieces from the new album: one that's "gamelan-like," another that's "80% in 3/4 time, with a pulsing groove -- to show that you don't need to play in an odd meter to be cutting edge."
Composing for the two-guitar lineup, without a regular keyboard player, has caused Johnson to become "even more classical" in his approach. In rock, he says, the traditional approach is to contrast single-note lines with "chunky sounding chords or 5ths, or strumming with fingerpicking." For Thinking Plague's next album, he envisions "two fuzz guitars playing sustaining single notes, each interacting as a separate voice with the woodwinds and even accordion. It's a monophonic contrapuntal approach, using chromatic harmony and independent movement of lines, where each note creates a new expectation."
If that sounds wonky, his intended effect doesn't: "To put power and emotion in the music."