Udi Koomran interview by Jeff Melton 2005
Introduction: Udi Koomran may be unknown to most progressive rock fans, but he has been a mover and shaker working behind the scenes as engineer and producer with various artists including Present (also doing live sound), 5UU's, Ahvak and acclaimed Israeli Klezmer act, Kruzenshern & Parahod. Exposé is indebted to the talented engineer and sound man for sharing interview time with us while expecting his new baby.
Expose: How did you develop an interest in music? Koomran: I began listening to music very early on. One day in 1974, l heard a track on a local radio show that really fascinated me. it was Gong's "A Sprinkling Of Clouds." It began with those floating synthesizer textures then into the glissando guitar passage with the tabla groove. Then the bass solo appeared and then the full band built up to a climax and it finally it dissolved at the end. I had never heard anything like this before and music has never affected me in such a way since. So this radio program was the beginning of my musical education. Then l got to know Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow, Magma, Faust, Zappa and an endless list of other bands. I was listening to lots of styles of music from rock, psychedelic, and progressive to free jazz, ethnic world music, and 20th century classical. I didn't have a good stereo system (and I still don't). For my 13tn birthday my dad got me a pair of Koss headphones and that opened the door to a new world. l started listening to stuff like Gong's You, Pink Floyd's Ummagumma or White Noise's An Electric Storm with headphones, as a young kid, and this probably sowed the seeds.
Expose: Have you had any formal training or schooling to do production work? Koomran: No, l studied engineering in London for a year. l managed to learn a lot from musicians l worked with like Avi Belleli, Roger Trigaux and Dave Kerman.
Expose: When did you decide production work was something that you wanted to do and you were good at doing it? Koomran: Well l think l was interested in production from the word go but it took me quite a while to find the musicians who trust my taste and skill to produce their music. As far as being good at it l am never quite sure but the fact that people l admire want to work with me helps.
Expose: What producers do you admire and why? Koomran: l like producers who develop their own language and signature (defying trends and fashions). They should be sensitive enough to know what the Project really needs and inject just the right amount of their own output into that recording. Being sensitive and flexible is crucial otherwise the resuit ends up sounding like a formula. Imagine how Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica would sound if Frank Zappa was not sensitive enough to fulfill Beefheart's totally unique vision. Probably my favorite producer is Bob Drake. Bob is one of a kind, a true original; so much talent in one man! Bob has done dozens of great records such as The Skull Mailbox, NORMA & Chris Cutler and 5UU's- Crisis in Clay. Trey Spruance is aiso an amazing musician and producer; Mr. Bungle's California is his masterpiece. His recent works with Secret Chiefs 3 are also extraordinary. He has the ability to mix very diverse styles of music in a unique way. Also l like Lutz Glandien (Domestic Stories, The 5th Elephant & Lost In Rooms), and Steve Tibbetts —YR, The Fall Of Us All, A Man About A Horse. And Godiey & Creme; listen to "I Pity Inanimate Objects" from Freeze Frame. This is a great example of using the studio creatively. The ultimate producer, pioneer and innovator was Frank Zappa with so many groundbreaking records. Those who think he dried up in his last years should get a copy of "Civilization Phase III" and listen carefully. Ah, to think what he would have been doing with today's technology.
Expose: You also engineer as well as produce: what kind of advantage does that give you in the studio? Koomran: Well life is easier for the producer/engineer. Having the technical knowledge gives a wider scope and range of possibilities. Some producers prefer to concentrate on production and use other engineers, but for me it's easy, as engineering and production complement each other. On some of the projects I worked on (like Ahvak or 5UU's) the lines between production arrangement and engineering gets blurred. The sound arrangements and dynamics are created sometimes simultaneously. Productions like these turn the studio into a creative instrument. The traditional sound of the band is sometimes not enough so we search for new sounds and textures. This involves quite a lot of computer sound design. Software is where the innovation is happening these days (Lutz Glandien: The 5th Elephant & Secret Chiefs 3: Book Of Horizons are good examples). Producing and engineering music like this requires the sound to be dynamic. It can not stay idle; it has to flow and change with the music and serve different atmospheres and energies otherwise the result seems static and shallow.
Expose: How long does it take for you to grasp what a band is looking for before you can determine what is needed to bring out that missing element? Can you provide a recent example? Koomran: Well it depends on the project and the situation in which I was introduced to the band. There are some instances where I get to hear a band playing the material live and that gives me a good opportunity to get familiar with the music and find out what is needed in order to turn this into an interesting album. Sometimes I have to figure it out along the recording process. For example I recently finished producing a young local progressive band called Sympozion. I did not have a chance to see them play live but I came to a rehearsal and there I realized what was missing and what is needed from the production. I felt like the arrangements they did were good and their playing was great but the group sound was not there yet. They needed help with finding the right sounds that will compliment the parts they were playing to help reach a more defined sound.
Expose: Please tell us about the work you have done with Dave Kerman and 5UU's. Koomran: The album I worked on Abandonship was written and composed by Dave (in Yordei Hasira, a little fiat right next to the old harbor) in about two weeks. His method of working was to make a four track demo tape and use that as a guideline for the actual recording. All the melodies, structure, and tempos were already there on that tape. We would copy the metronome track from his demo into the computer and start recording the basic tracks and then add more elements to reach the feeling we were looking for. By the time we finished Abandonship, Dave realized the full potential of working in a non-linear system and the huge advantages over tape he used in the past. Tape based recording is a linear medium; you need to rewind or fast-forward a tape to hear a particular spot in a recording. To arrange or repeat material in a linear system you need to record it onto a computer hard dise. Recording then becomes a non-linear medium that has huge advantages. You can easily rearrange or repeat parts of a recording and this arrangement is non-destructive. Our next step an EP titled "Tel Aviv Constructions Events 1-3" was to try and start doing things differently and use the computer to work in new ways. Creating music in this working environment enables you to change the form and structure of the music as you record. We were no longer bound to the initial "chart" or tempo, just to the basic idea and feel we were searching for. Another thing we wanted to do is to try and use other musicians output in fresh new ways. Bob Drake sent us bass parts and a bunch of electrified drum tracks he recorded with Chris Cutler. Janet Feder sent us some unique guitar sounds and chords, as did Scot Brazieal & Avi Belleli. There was also the Dror Feiler session with that monstrous contra bass sax that can also be heard on another live recording I did of Ned Rothenberg playing a Japanese flute. No instructions or any guidelines were given to the players. It was our task to take these ideas and harness them into our initial idea or basic feel of the piece. It was a very challenging task I can tell you. Some moments can be extremely satisfying like the interaction between Scot's piano and Chris's drums in "Bulldozer" or Dror's solo with Bob's bass on "Resolve." But this method of work is not easy, sometimes you go a very long way down a path you later realize it leads nowhere. I guess these are the hazards of experimenting and working with no formulas. There is the chance that something you work on eventually will end up in the bin, but I don't see this as failure at all. It is an integral part the creative process. There is a long piece (about 12:00) that we slaved over for months on end and Dave eventually decided to abandon as it wasn't coherent. Sonically it's one of the most interesting pieces of music I have worked on but l guess musically it wasn't focused enough. Oh well...
Expose: How did you become involved in the Ahvak project? Koomran: In 1998 l found a message from Yehuda Kotton in the Present guest book saying something like, "Come to Israel it's nice and sunny here!" So when Present came to work with me here l wrote him and said,
"Hey! Guess what? They are here." Yehuda told me later that he thought it was an April Fool's Day joke. So we became friends. He introduced me to Udi Susser and Udi played me some of his early home recordings. When Dave came to stay in Israël l introduced him to Yehuda and he helped design the 5UU's website. l was invited to a rehearsal of "Verdun" and immediately l thought they needed to try a different drummer to suit the music. Sometime after that Yehuda invited Dave to join them. Then when they started planning to make a record it was natural that l would work with them.
Expose: What do you think are the outstanding tracks and why? Koomran: My favorite tracks are "Vivisection" and "Ha Mefahakim." "Vivisection" is probably my favorite because it's the most original and has some sound elements from this part of the world. On "Ha Mefahakim," I really like the mélodies. The arrangement seems to have all the elements that make up the Ahvak sound. The moods are shifting from kids on a merry-go-round, moving to somber, dark passages from below.
Expose: You are credited with using computer on the CD: Please describe how you used your computer expertise and on what pieces. Koomran: The computer work on Ahvak was different from other works I have done. I had the ability to augment the live instruments with sounds we sampled and designed. So if I felt that the guitar sounded good but still needs some extra "spice," I would use samples we made to play the guitar part in a different range or timbre. This was one useful method. Sometimes Dave would use the computer to alter the original structure of the music to achieve a better flow. This music is very strictly composed and structured. So we felt the need to add another dimension to the music that would contrast. We created a large bank of computer generated noises and sounds. Then we added these elements to destabilize things; this helped achieve a good balance of order and chaos. A lot of the signal processing on Ahvak was done with software. I am working closely with an Israeli company called Waves and so these software plug-ins have an important role in the mixes.
Expose: What was the most difficult track to work on in your opinion and why? Koomran: "Dust"was a very hard piece to mix. There is something about mixing these kinds of pieces that is difficult (like mixing for Present). Obviously there is a symphonic element so we wanted it to sound a bit different. There is quite a lot of sound design involved in this piece which helped. There is one passage that lasts for maybe ten seconds (where the "drums" enter) that took us probably three days of work to solve. I am happy with the final resuit.
Expose: Tell us how you happened to work with Kruzenshtern & Parohod. How did you meet Igor Krutogolov and the band? Koomran: Boris Martzinovsky told me about them and gave me the first CD they made. I had a chance to see them play live at a local club and I liked them and was impressed by Igor's stage persona. They come from a hard core/punk/noise background and although they seem to appeal to people who listen to prog, they don't really listen to that stuff. They are an Israeli band with three members who are originally from Russia. That is normal in Israel, as we are a real melting pot of cultures and ethnic origins.
Expose:How complete were their arrangements when you became involved with them? Koomran: The arrangements were finished before I stepped into the picture.
Expose: How did you and Igor establish a working relationship to bring the pieces to a working format? Koomran: Well I mixed two songs and gave him a CD to listen to and see if he liked the resuit. Igor was quite surprised with the result and told me there are now nuances he hears in the mix that he almost forgot he played. So then I went along and mixed the entire album and Igor joined me just before the mastering for some few final finishing touches. It was fun to work with him. We share the same ideas.
Expose: At times the band also ventures in musical terrain similar to that of Lars Hollmer (Samla Mammas Manna). Are there any influences that come from Lars? Koomran: As I said these guys are not really into the avant/prog school. They love Leonid Soybelman (NeZhdali/Kletka Red) and Naked City is a favorite too.
Expose:How did the band and you come to do the John Zorn cover song? Koomran: I have no idea, but as I said they like Naked City so that must have something to do with them choosing this song.
Expose:Which pieces are you happiest with as to how they turned out in finished form and why? Koomran: I love "Shtetl" in a nutshell as it has all the elements that make the Kruzenshtern sound: energy, playfulness, humor and punch. "Colbasa" is a good one too.
Expose:Were there any abandoned pieces? If so, why? Koomran: Yes there is one piece that did not make the final CD. It has a nice drum solo at the end but over all it wasn't strong enough.
Expose:How does the production work for this album differ from other works you've been involved with? Koomran: Most of the stuff I produced is usually complex and highly arranged that is recorded in layers of overdubs. This music was recorded live. The line up is smaller and I had to make sure it sounds alive and bouncy. So the usual techniques of processing and sound design were not necessary.
Expose:Thee sound is very good on the disc. To what do you attribute this? Koomran: I think the fact that the sound is dynamic helped the result a lot. This music turns and changes quite a lot and so the sound needs to follow these changes. If you listen to a piece like "Shtetl," you can hear that the ambience of the drums changes a lot and on the clarinet changes it too. Plus the curve on the bass is never static. This complements the music a lot and makes the mix sound alive and fresh.
Expose: What kind of budget were you working with? Was this any kind of constraint on the finished project? Koomran: Well I am glad you asked that because this is something that I am not sure most people who listen to this music are aware of. These projects are done on a very small budget. On the other hand this kind of production calls for a lot of attention to détails and this usually is very time-consuming. Let's just say that in order not to compromise the resuit I often need to compromise my living standard.
Expose: Are you planning to work with the group in the future? Koomran: I think they plan to work with Billy Anderson (Mr. Bungle's engineer) on the next CD and that could be interesting for me too cause I'll probably come to watch and learn.
Expose: Tell us about the sessions with Roger Trigaux for Presents High Infidelity and the sessions in Israel? Koomran: When Roger was here for the Tractor's Revenge Othello sessions he decided to come and work in Tel Aviv with me on his next two CDs. He and his son Reginald arrived here a few days before the whole band for some pre-production work. Then we recorded most of the material for No. 6 and High Infidelity nonstop 16 hours a day for 2 weeks at the Noise studio. Then we moved onto my place for the mix.
Expose: What was their impression of the working environment and town where they stayed? Koomran: Well they loved Tel Aviv. When they were away from the studio they enjoyed the weather and spent most of the time at the beach and cafes getting to know thé girls. You should have seen Regi's tan; he was red as a lobster . They loved the humus and Jahnun (Yéménite food).
Expose: Tell us about working at the Noise studio: How big is it? Koomran: Noise (now out of business) was our favorite studio. That's where Tractor's Revenge used to record. It's quite small with very modest gear but the vibe was great and Roger loved it. It was the only studio in Tel Aviv that felt like home.
Expose: What was the hardest piece to record from a purely technical point of view? Koomran: (Sometimes as you know some instruments don't sound right after you record them). Producing Present was a challenge. It's not easy to capture the energies and the complex nature of the arrangements with emotion. It's a hard job but the experience of working with Roger is always rewarding. Roger wanted to use an electric piano for the recordings. I coudn't get the Yamaha CP 80 (used on Trikaidekaphobie and Art Zoyd's Phase IV), but I brought another one that didn't sound right we were quite disappointed with the result. I had an idea to use Noise's old upright acoustic piano and this turned out to be quite a surprise. Usually it's very difficult to blend an acoustic piano with distorted guitars and over driven bass. With an unusual microphone technique, I was able to get a bright and present sound that made the piano cut trough the mix. Today this piano lives in my living room!
Expose: Did the band ever do a full run through of the tracks before recording, or was it piecemeal one member at a time? Koomran: Prior to coming here they did 4 weeks of rehearsals at Roger's house. Roger prefers recording one instrument at a time. That's how he always recorded his music. Even "La Faux" (on Universe Zero's Heresie) was done like this.
Expose: Are there any abandoned songs as a result of the recording sessions? Koomran: No, but some of Roger's vocals and Reginald's solos surfaced on Abandonship.
Expose: What was it like for you to work with Roger and comprehend what direction this disc might go? Koomran: Right from the first session we did on Othello we both realized we understood each other well and both of us shared the same passion for this music. The direction of the project was clear from the beginning and we didn't even discuss it; we both knew how we wanted it to sound. Roger demands total commitment but has special ways to show you how much he appreciates the hard work.
Expose: What in your opinion is the best piece on the disc and why? Koomran: "Souls For Sale"is the best as it has all the elements that characterize Present's sound. I still can't believe I was able to mix all these into the tracks (46 go with the modest computer I was using at the time).
Expose: What tracks gave you and the band the most problems to complete? Koomran: Recording the solos is always a big issue. The bass solo on "Limping Little GirI" and Regi's solo on "Souls For Sale" were not easy. I remember Roger counting back from 13 in order to get Keith into the mood he was looking for.
Expose: Were there any pieces which were easier to work on? Koomran: Nothing is easy about Present. Dave used to joke that by the time you finish a tour or record with Present you end up looking like the prisoner bonded in chains from the Triskadekaphobie cover.
Expose: How did you arrive at the decision to include brass arrangements? Koomran: After No' 6 we were invited for a festival in France and they suggested the idea of expanding the line up. They were generous enough to give us a house and a great rehearsal hall with a good PA System for a week prior to the Festival. The show was a success and Roger decided to continue with this line-up.
Expose: Who wrote out the charts for the band? Were they recorded last for the album? Koomran: Roger wrote most but Pierre Chevalier also contributed for the arrangements on a piece titled "Strychnine for Christmas". Roger always prefers to record the drums last (a habit from the UZ days).
Expose: Were there any parties or celebrations for the completion of the CD? Koomran: Yes, we did a big Christmas gig organized by the label, Carbon 7, in Brussels. Towards thé end of Promenade au Fond d'un Canal, l was sweating over the mix and l raised my head and saw a Belgian police officer shouting at my face in French. Without hesitation, I yelled back at him in Hebrew while Guy Segers tried to calm things down. A moment later the PA's power was cut but the band continued playing regardless until the end. The stage sound was so loud they didn't even realize the PA was dead. I guess that says something about how loud Present like their monitor mix.
Expose: Tell us about some of your current endeavors: Where did you meet the members of Sympozion? Koomran: I heard about them from Dave and Yehuda who saw them play live. Then they contacted me and wanted to know if I was interested in working with them. I think Meidad Zaharia told them to try me out.
Expose: How did you get set up to work with them on this recording? Koomran: Well they recorded the drums in another studio. My idea was that if we tried to record and mix one song that had all the features of the album, we could see if we liked the result and then make up our minds if we wanted to continue. So we did that and liked the results and continued doing the entire album. All the guitars and bass tracks were overdubbed at my place. Most of the keyboard performances were done by Arik Hayat at home, and then transferred to me by e-mail. I continued working on the keyboard sounds on my own. We also did some acoustic piano tracks and I mixed most of the stuff on my own.
Expose: How were these sessions different for you than some of your others you've done? Koomran: Sympozion is a young band with not a lot of studio experience so naturally I handled the production responsibilities, mostly on my own this time.
Expose: The arrangements are well thought out. How tough was it for you to do these recordings? Koomran: Yes they arrange their compositions very well so I didn't need to deal too much with changing structures or working on the dynamics. The main task I had was to find the right sounds that will compliment the parts they played and create some sort of characterized group sound. I knew they needed a lighter touch and not so much studio processing like Ahvak or 5UU's, but still there were some of those techniques used for achieving color and contrast.
Expose: They are a kind of semi-classical rock group: how would you classify their work? Koomran: Compared with other stuff I usually work on, they are more in the traditional progressive sound. I wanted to work with them because I believe they are truly searching and trying to stretch out. I am sure their future works will show more and more of this.
Expose: Can you comment on jazz and Canterbury-like influences? Koomran: I hear a light jazzy influence hère and there. Boris the drummer and Ori, one of the guitar players, are also playing with other jazz outfits. But Elaad and Arik (the composers) are not really into jazz. As far as I know they are more into contemporary stuff like Reich, Messeian.
Expose: Who is the main writer? Koomran: Elaad Abraham is one of the guitar players and Arik Hayat plays the piano/keyboard/vocals.
Expose: How are the arrangements worked out? Koomran: They rehearsed and played this material live over a year before the recording.
Expose: How prepared was the band to do recording? Had they done it before (assuming this was their first recording session)? Koomran: I think for most of them it was their first major production. The fact they played this live for many months helped the recording to go smoothly, and we no major problems.
Expose: Can you give an example of how many tracks for, say, "Grapefruit"? Koomran: We recorded the piano for that in my house and felt it needed a bigger sound so we went to the Rimon School and recorded their grand piano for this and for the last piece, "Grapefruit Variations". Arik Hayat is a very good pianist and so it went very easily in 2 or 3 takes.
Expose: When will this CD be released and on what label? Koomran: We are currently looking for a label that will help bring this music to the right audience. Any ideas?