To “freakers” of a certain persuasion, crazy doberman needs no introduction. To the rest of us, they’re a free-flowing, ever-evolving experimental jazz ensemble currently based in Richmond, VA. Their records, assembled and re-contextualized from improvisational explorations of spaces, tap into indescribable and deeply personal parts of the mind. My review of their latest record saw me wandering through the foggy wastelands of my own dreams in order to convey the sounds and wonders therein.
While their 2020 plans have changed quite a bit – their original goal was an extended tour interspersed with recording dates – the group has still had an exceptionally productive year. As of press time they’ve released two top-tier LPs via Astral Spirits and Digital Regress, a cassette tape of live performances on Industrial Coast, and a digital-only EP that raised over $1,400 for the Richmond Community Bail Fund. They’ve also issued a number of solo works and other curiosities on their record label Working Man Lay Down, with more material to follow in 2021 and beyond.
I really took a shine to crazy doberman’s work in quarantine, and couldn’t pass up the chance to pick the brains of the truly-wild, see-it-to-believe-it free jazz ensemble of our times. Thus, I was delighted to sit down with core members/bandleaders/masterminds Tim Gick and Drew Davis for a digital interview. The resulting conversation was fascinating and all-encompassing, covering everything from the band’s improvisation and editing processes to the surprising influences of trains and railroads upon their work and worldview. We also talked about acid, “the free Midwest” as a concept, and how Tim’s dreams may predict the future.
It’s interesting to see the way that psychedelics can drive the separation and dissolution of boundaries in the musical process. Are you guys able to tap into the crazy doberman essence without the aid of LSD? Or is that essential to your process?
Drew Davis It was a strange beginning or learning curve for some of us. I’ve long been an acid-eater, but basically, when we split off from this very planned-out doberman industrial-esque affair and had partnered up with [Wolf Eyes’ John “inzane_johnny”] Olson is basically when Tim and I took up horns for the first time. And for me, I’m a non-musician, record nerd, whatever – and so it helped me initially, and over that first year and a half of Tim and I traveling to Detroit once a month and playing with Olson… I don’t know. It opened up what I felt like were wormholes in a live setting. To be able to find where to punctuate sound, you know? And I felt like, under the guise of acid or the psychedelic experience or whatever, I felt more of the dead notes of the live show. The pauses.
Tim Gick The vacuums.
The spaces between.
DD Yeah, these beginning brass notes that I was learning, or ways to freak this horn that people hadn’t been doing, or whatever – in dead spaces. And it’s how I continually play to this day, no matter what instrument is picked up, you know? It’s filling in gaps laid out in the group setting.
From what I know about jazz, it’s the notes you don’t play and the choices you consciously don’t make that define you.
DD Yeah. Tim and I, we arrange these large fucking groups, and every time we record or we would play a live show, it’s like, you have these group meetings where you explain the importance of silence. The boldest fucking move you can make in the crew is to take a step back, always. We’re not trying to run a flurry of notes or solos or things.
TG Listening is the most important part of the conversation.
DD And it always has been. That’s how we’ve developed these soundscapes, you know? And you can play with 10+ heads and [have] it not be this overwhelming wall of sound. Because each and every person [who] steps into the fold knows, like, the eerie vibe and the nature of what we’re trying to accomplish.
My friend saw crazy doberman play in Columbus before the pandemic. And he said he was most struck by the silences – it sounded structured and orderly, but it was improvised. How does this happen? When you get to the studio, do you just hit play and go and arrive at these points cosmically? How much do you set yourselves up to arrive at certain points?
TG There’s a bit of orchestration at points, but mostly it comes down to trust.
DD I mean, there’s intense friendships behind all of this, you know? Long before we were fucking around with any sound stuff, we were just drinking together for years. I’m 37 years old, you know? These cats, in their core, are just cats that I’ve long been best friends with. We were listening to records together, drinking together, talking about these things before.
TG Smoking cigarettes in enclosed basements.
DD Just putting records on from a decade before anybody was like, “We can just do this shit ourselves.” Tim is the one person out of our circle that made his way out in the world from Indiana, and was putting out records with TV Ghost and things. And the rest of us were dicking about, bartending, or… you know. So there’s friendships.
Tim and I, when we started playing horns together, we worked at the same bar. So we’d go in every day before we had to mop up and set up the bar, and we’d play horns together and record that. And we did that fucking continually. So now, years later, we’re in the studio, it’s like… you just know your friends’ style, their manners of playing. Even if they’re getting “out there,” you just understand the pulse of their belly and heart. And so I can play with Tim, because I know the chess moves far later in the game with him.
To what extent is technique or training important or not important to you?
DD I don’t think it’s necessarily important.
TG I don’t think it’s necessarily important, and I don’t think it’s necessarily unimportant, either. I think it can go either way, really. Being very well-trained as a musician can also set up walls, but also not being trained at all as a musician, you don’t see where those walls could be. It’s a complete subjective experience that we’re expressing through what’s coming through our horns, our guitar, our drums.
DD There’s this personality. I’m still putting my personality on whatever instrument I’ve picked up, as do each and every one of us, skill set or not, you know? I think Tim and I regularly go back to Sun Ra’s Strange Strings record; [we’re] putting these unknown instruments into anybody’s hands, and they still put their personality, structure, rhythmic ability, anything behind it. Their heartbeat, right? It comes out in that.
TG So it doesn’t come down to a mastery of a certain instrument in itself, but just an understanding of life and how it can be transmuted through expression, through the guise of an instrument.
DD It’s a conversation between a bunch of motherfuckers. It’s this simplified variation, and you can show every bit of emotion – anger, sorrow, love – you’re just talking to one another. And that’s what we’ve done since the beginning. Some of us have gotten better, or worse, or whatever, but it still remains a continual conversation of non-verbal communication.
TG The most primitive form of communication is how things sound.
How do you determine when a record is done – when you can step away and say “This feels like a complete distillation of this session, or this grouping”? When does it become an object outside of you?
TG It comes down to that old cliché, right? “A work of art is never finished, it’s just abandoned.” I think, when it comes down to the recording process, we have a date of arrival and a date where we have to get all our shit out of [the studio]. As far as the finishing of things – editing, mixing, processing – it never really feels finished, at least from my perspective.
DD You can dabble on something for fuckin’ years, and tweak. I think we’ve talked about this before, and it’s something that I’m learning now that I have two children of my own: there needs to be spontaneous decisions made with quickness, because our time here in this realm is wildly short. And we’re trying to tell a story here with these records.
TG Each album in itself, you have all the different tracks on the album, which are like a chapter in a book. But that book is just a chapter in that point of existence.
DD You’re cutting down a storyline. We just met with everybody, like a big quarantine meet-and-greet, and recorded for nine days, you know? Those are twelve-hour daily sessions, so you can imagine the bulk of that material. And you take hundreds of hours of material, and you try to write a 45-minute tale of that experience with 15, 16 individuals.
How do you go about the editing-room process? Are you listening back through the full sessions and saying “minute three to eight sounds good”? How much post-production editing and arrangement comes about in the studio?
DD There are moments for Tim and I that are just ingrained in our brains from sessions.
TG Burnt into the mind.
DD Burnt sections where you’re like “This is when everything added up.” And it just sits in your head, like, “Wednesday at 7 o’clock, when we came back from dinner and everybody sat down, we have to revisit that first 15 minutes of passages.”
TG Everybody talks about it for days.
DD And those are just remembering points. The editing process is completely Tim’s wild world, but… Memorable moments are always gonna be memorable moments.
TG I’m actually just starting the editing process of the recording session we did in October, currently. And it’s a handful, because I do have to go back and just listen and scroll through. This last session we had was probably 25, 30 hours of recorded material over ten days. And I’m just going back and listening with an ADHD sort of vibe. Looking at all the waveforms, where there’s excitement going on. And I close in and target in on those, and listen, twiddle around for a minute, see if it’s making sense or not. Maybe scooch ahead or scooch behind, and see what strikes me. Channel-surfing, almost, to see what makes sense.
And then I start to cut off those areas, like, “OK, this is a movement, right here.” Three minutes, five minutes, eight minutes, twelve minutes of magic that I’m gonna have to delineate and cut off and preserve, and then go back and look into later. Then I put that aside and keep going on and doing the same thing. This process takes weeks for that many hours. Beyond that, it’s just going in, mixing, cutting stuff out, boosting stuff, that sort of thing.
Your label Working Man Lay Down has started issuing tapes again. And Tim, you just released your solo record as well. How has the non-doberman material changed the way you look at the act of creating music, and creating in jazz especially? Is it jarring to step away from free jazz and work on more arranged material?
TG Working Man Lay Down is Drew’s label, actually. Since I moved here, I made the suggestion, “Maybe we should start doing pro-pressed tapes.”
DD It’s basically just a way to enrapture all our friends. Even though we have this thing with doberman, and I feel like we have a little bit of shine with it, it’s really made up of so many more people than just Tim and I. We surround ourselves with every respected freaker we can get our hands on. And so WMLD is just an avenue to release not only doberman-related things or our solo output, but also our homies that aren’t getting fuckin’ recognized. These are geniuses that make up our circle. And it’s a way to, like…
TG Pay tribute.
DD And I can make some art for it, which I enjoy. I like the avenue of correspondence-trading and communication with the underground in general, throughout America and the countries beyond. Not only having a band, but having a label, just furthers all of that. It doesn’t seem separate from what we do as crazy doberman. Everything is under this umbrella.
TG For the album I did for WMLD, I just did it at the beginning stages of quarantine in March. We were initially set to do a tour with some recording dates in mid-March, and then the lockdown happened. I was about ready to leave town on March 12th; I had all my gear packed up, my bud coming who was going to play, do a round with crazy doberman. He came to pick me up, and I was like, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this; I talked to Drew last night, and it seems like shit’s pretty fucked up.”
That was right when all the shows were getting canceled.
So for the first two weeks after that, I was just like, “Well, since I’m not going to a studio to record with my homies to make an album, I’m just gonna imagine that at home.” That was the idea for that release.
What does “the free Midwest” mean to you?
DD I mean, really, we are Midwest boys. Tim and I, we both moved to Richmond, VA, and it’s where we call home. There are multiple reasons for that, but we’re setting up shop here. That means that crazy doberman is housed under the umbrella of Richmond, and that means WMLD is. We both came from the Midwest, we’ve long had decades of relationships in the Midwest. We feel that there’s a wild spark here in Richmond. It’s encapsulated in every genre across the board here. There’s a psychotic hardcore and punk scene here, an amazing and wildly active noise scene, metal, grind, noisecore. There are heavy hitters.
TG Where we’re talking from right now is my apartment, right next to Maggie Walker’s old bank, which is a Richmond legend – Maggie Walker, first African-American lady self-made millionaire, her original bank is right next door to me. And there’s like five or six bands that practice in this old bank, and a lot of it’s indie rock and stuff. But it’s amazing to me that I wake up in the morning, I have a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and there’s people playing music next door. And then at eight, eight-thirty at night, I’m having a port and a cigarette outside after dinner, and there’s music still going on next door. There’s such a vibrant – even if it’s not stuff that’s necessarily my taste, I’m really excited that there’s a lot of art and music that’s just happening here in Richmond.
DD The city welcomed me in a few years ago with open arms, and it just instantly made fucking sense to be here. I got pulled here on a whim from my partner’s job, and was instantly welcomed into the city. And we started gaining more doberman East Coast members. After that first year, it was like, “Tim, you have to move out here, the scene is just fucking insane.” And, like… we have love for the Midwest, you know? To no end.
TG Our birthplace.
DD And the people that shaped us, and our mentors there. We have taken this next step. I just think Richmond is raw as fuck.
TG It makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on here.
DD And you’re five hours to New York, four hours to Philly, hour and a half from DC and Baltimore. It would take us three and a half hours to get to Chicago.
TG And it’s funny: even when we were both living in Lafayette and were doing doberman from there, we were getting a lot more draw from the East Coast: New York, Philly, Baltimore. Even down south: Atlanta, New Orleans. We just had way more draw there than Chicago, which was less than three hours away.
DD And I think we all look up to all the Chicago freaks to no end.
TG Art Ensemble [of Chicago] is one of my favorites.
DD I’m sure there’s jazz people who think we’re blasphemous to the whole idea of playing horns, because we fuck it up on the regular, you know?
TG All acts are blasphemous from some perspective.
What are a few of your non-musical influences – stuff you wouldn’t be able to tell from hearing a crazy doberman record?
DD I think Tim and I are both humbled by the American landscape – the city and in the environment in general. Both of us are American travellers.
TG One thing I think we both share, which is also why we both love Richmond, is trains.
DD Trains are a large influence.
TG I remember being a child of five, six years old, and in the middle of the summer in Indiana with the windows open –
DD We grew up in a huge rail community.
TG – just hearing these trains, and these factories, reverberated through these plains of nothingness, and thinking “This sounds like alien music.”
DD Here’s some train shit: so there’s a Japanese record store – you know the one that’s like high up, like, 26 stories up? I’m pretty sure it’s called Ned’s. And it’s a Japanese noise record store in a high-rise building. And I’d heard rumors that they had framed photos of steam engines on their walls. There was a period where I was working at Numero Group where I was collecting basically just Grateful Dead bootleg tapes and British train records. There’s a lot of influence in there; there’s a great series called Trains in Trouble.
DD *laughs* And it’s the sound of steam engines malfunctioning.
TG That sounds incredible!
DD I grew up near trains, too. The sound of trains, the danger of trains, the hobo factor, the hopping – just regularly being around the tracks when you’re a kid in Lafayette, a train community.
We have train tracks near me, too. That’s a core Midwest thing, I think.
DD I think it gives you a lot of pleasant dreams and aspirations as a kid, like you could potentially leave society on one of these things.
TG No, for sure, yeah.
DD Tim and I have both hiked the tracks. And our violinist bought an old metal-fabrication building that butts up with the CSX [rail] grounds.
TG Which is where we recorded our upcoming album.
DD There’s a trail, deep into the woods behind the building that we record at, and it just goes onto the track. So it’s like, roll up a joint, go down, roll around… throw some trash on the tracks, whatever. But you know, there’s all kinds of things. I grew up skateboarding – for a thousand years, it seemed like – and that was my biggest inspiration for a long time. A lot of times, I think about people’s style, you know? Like Bobby Puleo or Lennie Kirk or Julien Stranger, and how they did these things.
And early in my horn playing, especially trumpet, you can nearly mimic the patterns of outsider technique that’s far outside of music, you know? Tim and I were just, like, chilling outside, and saw this primitive, inept, stumbling-block graffiti – that seems an influence, you know? I’m not a player, you know? Everything around me that’s, like, haphazard and done with ignorance influences me at times.
TG From the guts.
DD From the guts, yeah.
I know you’ve read my review of your latest record, where I talk about my dreams. I wanted to take it full circle and ask you guys if you’ve had any particularly memorable dream or nightmare stories you can recall.
TG I have, but… it takes a second.
DD Before my dream cycles were very much nightmare realms based on a pretty intense Pentecostal upbringing. So nightmares could seem to have spiritual ramifications of demonic activity or something like that. But honestly, I think the weed has decimated my dreams.
TG I think for me, dreams just provide a local, general anxiety. I am absolutely fascinated with the concept, and I still hold this belief (that I’m not convinced of currently) that my dreams predict the future.
DD I like that.
Elaborate! I would love to hear more about that.
TG This is outside my realm of belief–
DD So Tim doesn’t even believe anything!
TG I’m a complete nihilist. I think being a nihilist is the most spiritual one can be, honestly. Because to acknowledge there’s nothing beyond what is currently here is to say that what is here is the only thing that is sacred. And everything is sacred at that point. I feel like that’s the most spiritual tilt one can take.
TG Have you ever seen that film? Werner Herzog’s Aguirre?
I’ve seen a couple Herzog films, but never Aguirre.
TG Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Great film. You should watch all Herzog’s films.
So after that, what’s coming up on the WMLD docket?
TG We’re doing a reissue of free lsd.
DD I’m gonna do a sound poetry lathe dedicated to my past mother.
TG Well, your current mother.
DD But yeah, I think we’ll continue to do outsider, just freaker things within our circle. We’ve just gotten to a point where… Tim and I, basically, have just been so poor forever, like, our entire lives, really. So for the first time, there’s some money that comes in, and it’s like, “Oh, we could put out a tape, ‘cause there’s some money coming in.” And it wouldn’t cut into rent, or utilities, or some dumbass thing.
TG And that’s the thing, too. At this point, anything we’re doing is just going straight back into paying for the studio.
DD But there’s finally a little bit of dough to do things with, which is awesome.
TG Yeah, we have the ability to, like, “Oh, we want to go press 200 pro tapes, it costs 600 bucks.”
DD And we can do that now, which is exciting! I think that’s amazing. We’ve regularly penetrated into our family funds to keep doberman alive for so many years, and now…
TG …now we’ve got to figure out how to make it work.
My friend – the same friend who saw you live – wanted me to tell you that “crazy doberman is the new Grateful Dead.” And he wanted to know how you feel about that.
TG I’m into it. I hope the story arc isn’t the same. I want to be a cult leader, you know?
DD The respect for Grateful Dead is immense, I’ve always had an intense love for it. It’s truly an American institution, and something that I think both Tim and I respect to no end. If the pandemic weren’t going, we’d be on this freaker tour schedule that would never end, and we would be happy for any sort of comparisons in that world.