Interview: Grammy Winner Christopher King brings Primeval Greek Folk To Steady Sounds This Weekend

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More recent Chris King photo provided by his wife, Charmagne Dutton.
  • More recent Chris King photo provided by his wife, Charmagne Dutton.

Lifelong record collector Christopher King returns to Richmond this Sunday -- which means it's time to party like a remote village in 1920s Greece.

The increasingly well-known Faber, Va. native, who is getting more and more national press for his work as a producer and sound engineer, is returning to Steady Sounds this Sunday, Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. to DJ from his latest project that explores a time and place where music was a “tool for survival.”

“Why The Mountains Are Black,” released on rock star Jack White’s Third Man Records label, features a two-disc collection of primal and unhinged Greek demotika or village folk music recorded between 1907 and 1960. This is the fourth release in King’s impressive seven-part series of Greek/Balkan music; he’s also working on a book for W.W. Norton & Co.

Remastered from the original 78 rpm discs, the new records contain 28 unissued tracks featuring wild, dramatic “Macedonian bagpipes, keening violins, shiver-inducing zournas and shepherd pipes” according to the label.

King, who is famously old-fashioned, says he’ll bring 30 copies of the album to sell at Steady Sounds. The following weekend he heads to emcee a similar event at Third Man Records, a shop which he’ll be visiting for the first time (“To me, the only good thing that ever took place [in Nashville] was the 1928 Brunswick session that had Uncle Dave Macon” King says in typical fashion).

The Grammy-winner is a philosopher by nature whose passion and love for older music is hard to overstate. As someone who has sat next to him at his Nelson County home and watched him listen to records, I can attest this is a man who believes in music as far more than mere entertainment. It makes him the perfect candidate for archivist, or producer-as-artist, rescuing lost sounds of the past.

King also sits on the Richmond Folk Festival programming board but says it’s too early to talk about any upcoming acts. Though he does sound excited about the possibilities, including one act he's been working for nine years to bring to Richmond.

Style Weekly: How did the partnership with Third Man Records come about?

It came about because Susan Archie who I’ve been working with for 19 years, who does all my graphic design, she had to make a visit to Third Man almost two years ago to discuss the design for the Paramount box set. She brought a box of our work and gave it to Jack White and the Third Man guys. Turned out most of them already had all the collections. But Susan basically said, “This is work I’ve done with Chris King and he’s having a hard time finding a home for his work.”

When you’re doing very difficult collections that are not the typical dog-bites-man story, things not easy to understand, easy to swallow, easy to comprehend, or easy to sell, as soon as you start articulating those projects then suddenly you find you really have no label that’s willing to put them out on your terms. Or to compensate you properly. Or not dinker with it or fuck you over.

So basically it’s been a constant struggle to find a label that values aesthetics over the almighty dollar and values the producer as an artist in-and-of themselves, i.e. a creator not a tool.

So you were confident based on her conversations you’d get that at Third Man? I figured you knew next to nothing about Jack White.

I wouldn’t know a Jack White song if I heard one. I have no awareness of that. I completely and totally block it out of my life. I don’t let any modern music into my life. And if I walk into a shoe store and they’re playing that stuff, I just walk right back out.

How can you avoid it? Modern music seems ubiquitous in America.

Well, it’s like ear torture. So you have to make really safe decisions, like never leaving your home . . . I have a lot of inner anger, Brent.

Yeah, I’ve only ever seen one amplified concert in my entire life: Boris -- which I did out of friendship. In fact, when I was in college my parents really wanted me to leave campus and just do something – so my mom sent me $40 bucks and told me she wanted me to go see Sonic Youth [at Brown’s Island in Richmond]. Instead I took that money and spent it on cartons of smokes.

So what was the process like for this collection?

Basically what you hold in your hands I first articulated six years ago. After I had found that stack of Greek and Albanian 78s in Istanbul [where he had gone because his wife Charmagne wanted to see a concert by Leonard Cohen] I basically sat down a year after that and mapped out these philosophical themes that relate to the Balkan music, Greek music and Albanian music. I fleshed out this idea for “Why the Mountains are Black.” Then it basically took me a solid two years of writing, researching and working with the sound and getting everything exactly how I wanted. And when I had actually completely and totally finished everything – notes, design, remastering – then in my lap in the course of ten days I acquired two brand new test pressings for two of the songs I had already remastered in average shape. So I had to redo two whole sides of the collection to make those sounds fit better together.

Do you remember your first reaction to hearing these 78s?

Oh shit. I write about it in the first chapter of the book. I didn’t even have time to brush my teeth. I ran into the kitchen and washed the records. Charmagne and Riley had fallen asleep on the floor exhausted from the flight [from Turkey]. I spent the next six hours completely and totally entranced in my record room playing these sides over and over again because I’d never heard anything like it.

I like playing these songs with my Polk subwoofer up, so I can hear more bass.

That’s smart, because one of the real shortcomings of the 78 format by its very physical nature, it produces less real bass frequencies than say a 33 and a third, or a 45, because the faster a disc rotates the more treble acuteness you get, but less bass acuteness. The slower it goes, the more bass.

Some Americans probably first think of "Zorba the Greek" when they think of Greek music. One of the things that struck me here on first listen was it seemed like there’s a lot Arabic influence.

There’s a lot of what I would call Turko-Arabic music theory going on in the tracks and it’s a reflection not only of the roughly 400 years the Turks ruled mainland Greece but also most of Greek intellectual thought was not from Athens but from Constantinople which is in Asia Minor.

I’ll probably post one of your favorite songs from this collection, "Selfos" (“Nightingale”) by Demitrios Halkias with the Q&A. It’s got that amazing sound – almost like Charles Mingus dropping below the bridge – where the playing becomes percussive, and really sounds like birds chirping.

Those are string effects; but in the case of Epirotic style it goes from being a novelty to an extraordinarily difficult technical move that even classical violinists are afraid to do.

Have you ever wanted to get an advanced degree in musicology or anything? Seems like just one of your album projects would qualify as a thesis. The liner notes are great and I hope they earn you another Grammy nod.

Thanks -- But no, I have no desire to be identified with the world of academia or scholarship. But I will say doing these collections it’s been extraordinarily helpful, especially in writing this book for W. W. Norton on Epirotic music. Essentially the way I write are these 2,500 word essays where I explore this artist, or this regional music, or this vast notion of Greek folk music. When you start writing chapters for the book, you’ve already got a firm grasp of how this should go and it’s just a matter of adding documentation.

Basically [what I’m doing] is what the old notion of what ethnomusicology was – back in the '30s when it was coined it was a merging of music studies and anthropology. I’m attracted to this very curious notion about the origin and development of the music. Why does it exist, what’s its function? Nowadays they don’t even bother asking those questions because they figure they’re too hard to answer.

Amanda [Petrusich] was quoted in the LA Times piece by Sasha Frere Jones as saying about you: “I think he hears better, hears more, than the average person. But I also think he's someone whose heart and mind is open to music in a way that would shut down a less courageous figure. He is a person who wants all of a thing. He wants to inhabit a song, he wants it to possess him, he wants to find a way to lessen whatever distance might exist between him and art.” When did you notice you heard things differently?

My father was a music teacher and musician and collector of 78s. It’s really hard for me to put a finger on the transformation to the way I heard things. But I would certainly say it’s not necessarily a good thing. If 99 percent of population hears something completely differently from what you hear – that’s kind of a problem. It’s like having X-ray vision or something. Which maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing as long as you could stop before you got to the bones.

But if you pick up on certain frequencies, or detect things that others don’t between the lines . . . I know a lot of really talented, gifted writers who hear voices in their heads. Modern psychiatrists would call it schizophrenia, or some form of dysfunctionality, which may be what I have but it’s oracular.

But for these musicians and this culture, it was really a tool of survival back then during harsh conditions. Did you experience any of this while you were there?

Oh, fuck yeah. I was played into in Epirus three separate instances. And have lots of documentation about others. Essentially the actual psychological transformation that takes place when they get right up in your ear, right in your head, playing the clarinet exactly the way it should be played, and you’re surrounded by people you trust, and all the other psychological elements are perfectly in place. The transformation you undergo is essentially what Plato and Aristotle would have characterized as a musical catharsis. You actually undergo a release. It’s the result of a mechanism of music as a tool for survival.

You remember that discovery they made 15 years ago of that mummy they found in the Alps? He had a medicine bag on his person with herbs and fungi, early Neolithic nomads knew if you chewed on this root or bark it would treat X ailment. In that time we started to open up nature and find its secret -- I think we also discovered sound itself could be a curative thing.

I know you don’t listen to modern music, and it’s easy to see how a lot of it has become disposable and increasingly formulaic. On the other hand, you could see how a young kid might say that music -- whether its Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber or whatever -- is crucial to being able to deal, with high school for instance. It still plays a major role as a rite of passage for many.

I understand what you’re saying, but the music that’s available to the mass public is a pale derivative shadow of what’s available out there, i.e. this music. But I think there's something in the way in which humans have been hardwired over hundreds of thousands of years to seek this out, or basically control the environment outside us. Even on a deep biological level, we’re going to seek out something that resembles musical catharsis, musical comfort. Even if that which we seek out happens to be Justin Bieber.

The television doctor, Dr. Drew, once told me that kids spinning on the playground are seeking to alter their consciousness no differently than an early, aboriginal tribe that licks a frog’s eyeball to hallucinate. Throughout history, people seek to alter their reality.

As I write in this book, anthropologists have known for years now that there has never been a culture or society that has not had music. So, it could be safe to say its more universal than language or complex human emotions such as love.

Who has been the most valuable resource to you as you’ve traveled to Greece a bunch of times now?

The linguistic barrier is obviously a high hurdle. But there’s also the access and travel hurdle. I would say that nothing I’ve done in last few years could have possibly been done without the assistance of my friend Jim Potts and his wife Maria. They have a home there and he drives me around. And he’s just as intellectually curious about this music as I am.

And you know this, but obviously none of this would be possible without [his wife] Charmagne. It’s one thing to be a rabid monomaniac about things, but not being able to cook and clean and take care of yourself and organize things. I would be living in a cardboard box.

Where are you on your book?

I’m over half way done. For me, because I’m more accustomed to writing vignettes, those 2,500 word essays – this is more like 80 to 100,000 words. What would take a writer six months is probably going to take me two years. I’ll probably have a final manuscript available summer of this year, and it will probably be in print in 2017.

The editor Tom Mayer approached me because he had attended a book release party for Amanda at a bookstore in Brooklyn. She had asked me to play some music. I played the Alexis Zoumbas’ “Epirotiko Mirologi” and what started out as your typical barroom buzz just went fucking silent. Crickets could be heard. My editor was kind of slack jawed. So I talked to him briefly, he bought three LPs. I didn’t even know who he was. He basically emailed when he got home two days later, said he played in an old time music band for fun, but his day job was as senior editor and vice president of W.W. Norton -- and he asked me if I had ever considered writing a book about this music. So it was pure serendipity.

A lot of national writers note that the music you love and collect is often extremely sad music—dark, mournful stuff. Where does that come from? To me, having known you for years now, you’re funny as hell - with a biting sense of humor.

I don’t know where the impulse comes from. Charmagne and a lot of close friends all comment that I'm really fucking dark. I would probably venture to say that I have a lot of sadness inside of me, and it’s probably a build up of nostalgia for what I did know versus the reality of what exists now. People say I’m a softie, and still really nostalgic and sentimental. But I really long for the way things used to be – and the fact that they never will be again is really sad.

I’m like the opposite of a moth, not attracted to the light.

But listening to the music doesn't make anything worse

It’s a curative sadness-- more liberating. It’s like a really great cry.

Christopher King will be appearing at Steady Sounds at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28 to play his original 78s and talk about the album.

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