The ex->tension mastermind, NYC noise-rock pioneer and one-time Swans drummer talks Crawling Through Grass
Ivan Nahem might not be a punk household name, but the cred he brings to the table is manifest.
Nahem, a noisemaking multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, played a crucial role in helping plant the seeds of the noise-rock movement in dark and dank downtown New York City throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Logging time in post-punk outfit Carnival Crash and later on in experimental-meets-no wave group Ritual Tension, Nahem formed bonds with fellow musician peers such as Mark C and Norman Westberg, the former going on to start Live Skull and the latter best known as the long-time guitarist of Michael Gira’s Swans. Nahem eventually joined Westberg in Swans, playing drums on 1986’s Greed in a brief stint. These dudes—Nahem, Mark C and Westberg—form the trifecta of proto-noise-rock OGs.
Those invaluable alliances have only blossomed decades later. Both Mark C and Westberg, alongside a host of other luminaries including, Jon Fried of New Jersey power-pop institution The Cucumbers, Ivan’s brother Andrew, noise artist Gregg Bielski and others, join forces with Nahem on his brain-scrambling sprawl, Crawling Through Grass.
Warped and shapeshifting sonic vistas make up the cinematic Crawling Through Grass, a mind-bender of a record that has not only has my vote as one of the best experimental records of the year but also one of the most unique given its theme. Part yoga music (Nahem had a career as a yoga teacher and imparts his wisdom through his musical craft) part noise music and part ambient, the album’s seven soundcapes serve up moments of earsplitting dissonance and tranquil beauty. Not exactly New Age music, but think Eno jamming with later period Swans.
The Globe phoned Nahem at his home in Queens, New York to talk about his journey to Crawling Through Grass.
You’ve certainly run the stylistic gamut over your career arc. Do you look at Crawling Through Glass as a departure from your vision or is it a natural progression of your experimentalism?
(Laughing) At the beginning it was something to do on a whim and I thought it was a good idea. My pal and collaborator Gregg Bielski suggested that we do something with yoga music. In this century, I got very interested in yoga, in physical yoga, and I was teaching so Greg said something like, “Why we don’t we do something like yoga music? That would be kind of a new thing coming from our perspective.” I thought about it and I play music in my classes so I had an idea of what might work in terms of yoga. But I didn’t want to make yoga music, per se, because there’s devotional music that is much more something you would call yoga music—this wasn’t going to be that thing but sort of yoga-adjacent, doing something that’s kind of influenced by that and influenced by my experience as a practitioner and teacher. So, it was like, “Let’s try this out and and see what we can tinker with and do with this.”
Did you think you can pull off this type of yoga-centric music?
My brother, who I recruited along with a lot of other people, said, deliberately being ungrammatical, “We are the wrongest people to be doing this.” When I really got into it, I was thinking, “Well, maybe this is where in my latter days I’ll be spending most of my time doing this kind of thing.” But now I’m modifying that idea partly because I’m working on a live show and I’m not really an instrumentalist. And I didn’t want to use a lot of lyrics in this album. When you’re doing a class, you don’t want people to be distracted by lyrics and I rarely played anything that had any lyrics in English in class. So, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to see what I can do, working with what I know, instrumentals and all this newfangled MIDI.” I was learning Ableton Live and it was really fun to do. But in terms of a live performance, I think there’s one or two songs that I could perform but I’m not really an instrumentalist so I’ve been working on this live show. It’s much more edgy than Crawling Through Grass. I’ll incorporate elements of that but it’s also going to be more of an intense experience.
You refer to Crawling Through Grass as falling into a type of yoga-adjacent music, but there’s definitely sections that are heavy, noisy and unsettling. I’m thinking the music can be translated much differently in a live setting, not so removed from a noise show perhaps.
Definitely. That’s why I thought this is an interesting project. There’s a lot of woo-woo yoga music out there and there’s good ambient stuff, too. I’ve been listening to Brian Eno for decades. I wanted something that still had grit and yoga itself—I used to teach the history and the philosophy of yoga to other teachers and people think yoga is woo-woo and unicorns and rainbows and it’s not at all! It’s really about how life is fucking suffering, what are we going to do and how do you live?! There’s even some real dark sides to yoga. To me, that’s part of it being yoga-adjacent.
For example, the last song on the album, “51st St Śavasana”: When you’re lying there, that’s the resting pose and it’s actually translated as corpse pose—speaking of the dark side (laughs)— and all kinds of things go through your head so there’s parts where it’s really jumpy and nervous and then at the end, there is this long, cooldown and maybe you’re beginning to feel some of that tranquility. That’s what I was trying to get at in that music. Hopefully, that does translate to the stage. I study karate, too, and I studied a form called Goju-Ryu, meaning hard-soft. In my performance, I want to have that kind of thing where it’s not clobbering you on the head all the time; there’s some serenity in there but it’s also translating the greatness of the world.
Do you want the listener to have a cathartic experience listening to the music? An uneasy experience? It sounds like a little bit of both.
In terms of performance that’s really true. I think the original Trojan or Greek plays were a lot about going through that uneasiness and then finding a catharsis through it. We’ve gone through this really intense experience and where we’ve come out. That’s what I want to try to give the listener and the viewer.
You have many collaborators on Crawling Through Grass, many of whom you’ve been playing with for decades, your brother Andrew, Gregg Bielski, Marc C of Live Skull and Norman Westberg of Swans, amongst others. Did they send you their random parts and you pieced everything together to create cohesive compositions? The recording gives that kind of vibe.
You’re almost completely dead on (laughing). That’s how a lot of it happened. I would say the one exception was I said to my brother, “Can you come up with some guitar stuff that is along these lines?” He’s not into yoga or that sort of thing but he said, “Well, okay. I’ll give it a shot.” Then he gave me the basic tracks for “The Exaltation of Nothing,” so I’m almost ancillary on that song. I gave it some more backbone, I rearranged some of it and I put in little flourishes. On the other songs it was the opposite: I did the basic tracks, I gave them to friends such as Norman who I played with in Swans and Mark C who I played with a long time ago in what became Live Skull. Jon Fried is one of my best friends in the world and he makes completely different music than me in The Cucumbers. We got to know each other over the years. So there were all these collaborations, Gregg Bielski, a musician in Poland, Jadwiga Taba, and then I did some field recordings of my wife. She was very reluctant but I convinced her that I could use them on the record (laughing).
How much of Crawling Through Grass was built as composed pieces and how much was improvised?
You know, you have a lot of different ways of working and over the years I’ve developed a lot. I really started out as… I was pretty much told I didn’t have any musical talent. I began as a poet and a writer and you sit down, you have a blank piece of paper and stuff is in your mind or you have an idea. One thing that was really different from the past working with Ritual Tension was I wrote some of the songs on guitar but most of them were written by Mark or Andrew and then I would sing over that. But, here, because of the fact that for many years I stayed away from learning about music, now I’m really jamming on that. I’m trying to learn everything I can and there’s nothing wrong with being musical and knowing what you’re doing (laughing).
How have you been consuming all this newfound musical knowledge?
One of the songs that I’m going to use in the live show I didn’t use on the record because it was more lyric-based. I did an Ableton Live tutorial. Some guy was giving a tutorial of like “make one song in an hour and thirty minutes.” It took me a week to get through the tutorial. But at the end I took all those elements and I tried to work them into my own viewpoint. So, I had a melody and basic structures. There’s all kinds of ways to write this stuff. But, yeah, sometimes it’s just jamming around on it on an instrument that sounds good. With “The Sea, The Beach, The Jungle,” I have Syrian Jewish heritage on my dad’s side, so I heard a lot of Arabic music when I was young. In fact my cousin Beth Bahia Cohen
plays world music on numerous instruments, she can play the authentic
music, but I thought, “Okay, what was my knowledge if I took an Arabic scale and worked with it? What would I come up with?” Those tunes are deeply buried in me. I have some claim on them so I wanted to see what I could do with that. I know how the violins come in and that sort of stuff. That was really fun to work with. That’s just another way of saying, “Okay, I’ll take a scale and see what I can do with it.”
Gregg Bielski plays on Crawling Through Grass and you and him have developed a musical rapport in ex->tension over the last several years. I think the story goes that he was a Ritual Tension super-fan?
Being a fan, he wanted to do the Ritual Tension page on Facebook and so I helped him out with that. Then he had the idea of me doing these soundscapes. He’s a noise artist in Pittsburgh and he says, “Do you want to put some words to this?” Then I got involved in it and I wanted to make it more musical and stuff. That’s how that happened then we met up and we played together.
Then musicians like Westberg and Mark C play on the record and you have a long band history with them. You came to New York with Marc C originally and one of the first bands you were in in New York was with Westberg. Ya’ll have trudged along for decades. Live Skull are still playing in a new iteration, Norman is still doing his thing and you, as well.
The weird thing in this era is that everybody can make music and put it out there—it’s not hard to do. I’m glad I have some pedigree or whatever that I do know people and I’ve played with people and I have some history. But it’d be really hard to do anything at my age and just start out. The aging process is always a huge shock and surprise. You wake up one day and you’re no longer 27 (laughing). You feel like it but you have to go with those changes. Norman’s doing pretty ambient music these days. It’s not all “clobber you over the head” like Swans.
Talking about the early days, you came to New York in when? Where did you live?
I came out here with Mark C and Tom (Paine) in ’80. I first lived out in Bay Ridge near where my friend John Griffin lived. Then my brother moved out here and we got a place at 9th and C. It was advertised in the Voice that it was a good place to rehearse but I ran into the guy who had previously been there and I ran into him after this happened, which was that the basement flooded one day. It was an apartment with a basement and that’s where we had our equipment. We didn’t lose too much but the guy said, “Yeah, the East River just kind of rises up into your basement.” While we were living there, I remember watching the news and seeing some guy saying something had happened at 10th and C and he said, “This is like the most dangerous area in the United States” or something like that (laughing). It was just New York to me. Then Andrew and I got a place at 1st and First and lived there for several years. I’ve lived all around.
Ivan Nahem and ex->tension “Only Waking”
You and your peers definitely planted the seeds of what would ultimately become noise-rock in downtown New York City, I’d say.
I suppose we were (noise-rock) but we weren’t really sure what label to use because we weren’t punk and we were kind of post-punk but not quite Joy Division although that was a big influence and Birthday Party. Those were bands that were really influencing us. I was thinking about the genre term noise and that it’s kind of not really descriptive of what I’ve tried to do because noise is an element of the music I make but like (in) Ritual Tension, we were doing songs. Also, the phrase no-wave has come to describe what we do and I see certain bands succumbing to that, to say that they were no-wave. But no-wave, originally, were the people who couldn’t play their instruments at all, like on that No New York album, those sort of bands. We weren’t doing that but there were elements that you would say were. Like the introduction to “Hotel California” is just basically noise and spoken word and I’m using some of that in my current show, so I’m thinking about it. I think people use noise because it means it’s not like anything you hear you’re going to see on the Grammys or that kind of thing (laughing) so that’s why it can be useful. But, to me, it’s more like just a grittiness that we’re trying to get at and we try to mirror the grittiness of the world in the music that can reflect that.
Ritual Tension has been through a few different versions over those formative years but you seemed to miss the boat on the noise-rock scene that blossomed in the late eighties and early nineties that was pioneered by bands like Unsane.
Yeah, our last gig was in 1990. Andrew and I had started just as a duo called Tension and we debuted at White Columns in ‘81. It was kind of interesting, the milieu that was around then. But Hilly Kristal loved us at CB’s. He thought we were the next Talking Heads. He even put out our live record along with Celluloid Records because he had a (CBGB) label for a minute. We would play Saturday night headlining whenever we wanted so that was cool. After I left the Swans, we did get a gig opening for Swans at the Ritz in 1987. We (Ritual Tension) did a residency at a place called Tin Pan Alley for three or four days with Live Skull. I always had envisioned that maybe if we had a genre name or something, who knows, that we could have been a vortex of likeminded bands. But we were on the lower end of that totem pole.
As for Crawling Through Grass, do you think you’re mellowing with age?
(Laughing) I don’t know quite how to answer that. Someone over the phone a couple of months ago said, “You’re not staying true to your brand” and I was like, “If you’re a serious artist, you go in certain directions and you have to go down certain roads. Sometimes it’s a detour.” I don’t feel mellower in terms of life. I’ve always been interested in the same sort of stuff and the same kind of intensity. I don’t think someone’s going to come to see my show and think, “Oh, man, that guy, does he think he’s Glenn Frey or something?” That’s not gonna happen (laughs). But that said, there is a place for, like I said, hard/soft. You have to have some contrasts.