Life has been busy as I have been finishing up Brandeis. I am now just waiting for graduation to happen in two weeks.
I now share with my loyal readers, the last paper of my college years, a profile of the avant rock composer, guitarist, bassist and manager of the Marshall Chess Club Ron Anderson:
“It’s funny how this little niche of the music world I’m in … there’s a parallel universe in the chess world,” said Ron Anderson, one of the managers of the world famous Marshall Chess Club on 20 West 10th Street in New York City. Don’t confuse Ron with being a chess professional, however; his main passion and career is that of a composer of avant rock .
Ron essentially lives in a binary world, dealing with eccentric, diverse chess players and the alternative Prog Rock community. In each scene he interacts with not your average Joe. Over the last three decades, he’s recorded music and performed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He’s most famous for his tenures with RAT AT RAT R, The Molecules and his current band, PAK.
At 52, Ron’s busier than ever with PAK and other projects. In November-December 2011, PAK did a 33-night European run. While PAK might not be able to draw the sold-out crowds that the Allman Brothers or Furthur attract for their infamous Beacon Runs, their international presence is widespread. In his own words: “This last tour of PAK…Just to be able to do 33 concerts, yeah, small ones, club concerts, but still to have people see, and appreciate you and [give] you a chance to play every night even though that’s exhausting.” He went on to say, “By the time I got home it took almost a month to recover… It took [his drummer] Keith a month to recover and he’s just 30. I’m glad I’m in good shape.”
|Keith Abrams and Ron Anderson of PAK in Zabrze, Poland (November 2011)
Don’t listen to any of Ron’s music expecting a smooth feel. As music writer Justin Vellucci frankly puts it, “Ron Anderson is the best kind of madman. There’s just no other way to say it.” The paradox “best kind of madman” aptly describes his music; believe it or not – there’s a method to his madness. Who knows how he does it, but his use of multiple instruments and special recording techniques makes for fun, appealing music.
As a teenager disturbed my interview with Ron to sharpen pencils, Ron exclaimed, “There is a huge movement of people just doing noise. Amplifying 10 pencil sharpeners for example, at ear splitting volumes and a lot of this kind of stuff was coming from Japan.” While this was a hypothetical example inspired by the youngster’s actions, the idea of taking a petty object to sharpen the effects of music is innovation in and of itself.
Ron’s started piano lessons at the age of 9 near his home in New Jersey. As years went on, Ron started to play electric bass in a high school rock band. The ambitious teenager noticed his friends were playing in a band without a bass player. Having never even picked up the instrument in his life, he “got a bass and amp and learned how to play in a week.” He’s the first to admit that the band was “pretty horrible, but that’s how it got started.” They “started playing covers of Cream, Mountain and Black Sabbath and that kind of stuff…”
When asked when he started to take music seriously, he said, “I always took it very seriously even in high school but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.” A typical young musician, he was on the fence about whether to continue music professionally, attend college, or do a combine the two. To keep his options open, he ended up attending Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.
The scholarly musician graduated but preferred musical notes to textbooks. In 1980, Ron co-founded his first semi-major band, RAT AT RAT R, with Victor Posion-tete in Philadelphia. The band pushes a triple anagram of art smack in the middle of their eyes as they fail to notice it. As if the anagram weren’t obvious enough, Ron explained how its capital letters “make [the band’s name] stand out.”
RAT AT RAT R parted ways when Victor and his wife, the band’s bass player, Sonda Andersson, moved to New York. “I think everyone was sort of burnt out; we were young. They wanted to move… I stayed in Philly another 6 months, ” he said. Living the typical downwardly mobile musician’s life, he said, “It was just time to move on…” After all, it “was the early 80s… a really good time for music. There were a lot of venues and a lot of people experimenting. It seemed wide open with what you can do; it seemed like you could almost do anything”, he said.
The split between Victor and Ron didn’t last long. When Ron and his ex-wife moved to New York from Philadelphia, they “ended up in the Lower East Side…in the same building as Victor,” he said. Was it Katz’s Delicatessen that brought them to the same place? Was it Guss’ Pickles? Or was it some other magical force that brought them to the same neighborhood… Who knows?
Victor and Ron were neighbors but no longer band mates.“I was really in this experimental stage. It was a couple years before I really had any kind of serious project; almost all throughout the 80s until I moved to the West Coast, I just had a lot of improvised gigs, a lot of pickup gigs.”
As a free bird, Ron flew solo for several years, picking up odds and ends here and there. The bird flew to utopia in downtown Brooklyn, where he settled to live in a music studio. What kind of work-life balance is that?! Imagine an investment banker staying 24-7 in his Wall Street office. Investment bankers may be there 70 hours+ a week, but they do get some time off. On the other hand, Ron was living in heaven, being “able to make noise 24-7.” Especially after he broke up with his wife and had the territory all to himself, he’d invite fellow musicians over all the time: “You know, hey, you’re coming into town: yeah, come crash at my place, we’ll record something, crash my place, we’ll do this… we’ll do a gig.”
The Allman Brothers tune “Ramblin’ Man” may as well have been written about Ron. Ron was “unattached” and “ready for something new.” He thought to himself, “I [have] friends in San Francisco… new place, new environment: why not.”
|The Molecules during their 2007 West Coast Tour
Ron considers his second life, also known as The Molecules, “[an incorporation of] all the things [he] was doing in NY: improvising, performance… art, high energy rock music, punk music… and progressive rock with roots from the 70s.” He explained how he “grew up in that era of all the prog rock greats, like King Crimson and Frank Zappa.” He laughed, “The Molecules really made a mark, a small mark, a very small mark.”
While he is currently the pack leader of PAK, The Molecules haven’t exactly fallen off the face of the earth. It’s true Ron moved to Geneva in August 1998: “It wasn’t like the band broke up or anything… It wasn’t like ‘I hate you guys, I don’t want to speak to you again.’ It was like I just want to move,” Ron said. As a matter of fact, The Molecules are slated to play during Ron’s forthcoming two-week long schedule of shows in November at New York City’s The Stone.
“The Stone (one of his favorite venues) is one of the most important centers for innovative music in New York City. You know how some chess players come to wow the Marshall Chess Club? … When people come from Europe and Japan, one thing they plan is to come see something at The Stone.”
Currently PAK performs as a large ensemble, but he has worked with . Ron knew PAK’s original drummer Race Age from the 1980s and Keith Abrams replaced Age in 2003. Ron found the other two musicians in their 20s through a Village Voice ad. Jesse Krakow became the band’s bassist. Will Redman, who’s currently working on a PHD in music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT under the guidance of Anthony Braxton, took on guitarist duties.
Ron emphasized NYC’s diversity of musical talent: “If you think you’re good and you live in Ohio and you think you’re the shit, at some point if you have a brain, you will say to yourself I’m going to move to New York… You just need to go to some center where there’s always some hotshot musicians… I mean it’s NYC, man.” It’s hard to argue with Ron as the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Ramones all became famous in NY.
Part of what makes Ron unique is his “ufaratzta” a Hebrew word for “spreading out.” While mainly a guitarist, he’s versatile. When Krakow left PAK, Ron quickly took over bass to maintain that necessary fast-paced and complicated rhythm.
What likely distinguishes Ron the most however is an innovative recording ability. “I like the documentation idea of recording a live event, but if I want to cut out the drums, put in new drums, make the drums go backwards… I am more than willing to have fun.” On PAK’s latest CD, Secret Curve there’s a song “E4 or D4.” “I did about 1000 edits, very quickly using the computer. Then I took these edits and rearranged them into loops and I shuffled them around, first randomly. Then as I started to hear ideas I liked, I started to refine [them],” he said. “By the way I am regressing here but E4 and D4 are the two most common first move choices for the white side in chess. “
“I really like the idea when you make an album worth of music where each song is important and you might have an experimental piece, a changeup …that surprises the listener to something he wasn’t expecting,” said Ron. Meanwhile, he said “It’s one of the things that has happened… with people listening to music on the Internet and randomly downloading songs.” By downloading random songs, younger generations don’t understand the concept of an album.
Ron’s ufaratzta alternatively exists outside of the musical realm. “I’ve wanted to study French; I pick it up, I drop it, I pick it up, I drop it. C’est la Vie, you know. It is what it is… I can’t do everything,” he said. As “E4 or D4” and another track “Caro Kann,” named after one of chess’s more passive-aggressive openings, clearly illustrate, Ron has developed a strong passion for chess.
Asked to describe his musical style, he said, “Adventurous, creative rock music that uses odd metered complicated time signatures, free improvisation, melodic and non-melodic phrases, played at times at very fast tempos to produce a surprising and/or exciting visceral musical experience, like a game of bullet chess after drinking a double shot of Espresso.” Bullet is the kind of chess game you see madmen playing in Washington Square Park where pieces are flying all over the place since each player only has one minute to make all his moves.
Many chess players have issues devoting enough time to studying the game because of jobs, schoolwork, family commitments, etc. For Ron, the opposite problem exists. “For a while, chess has been interfering with my music because I became completely obsessed with chess.”
He compares studying chess and practicing music: “Just like you put heavy hours studying chess, if you want to become obsessed, you go for it… You know I could do 3 hours of practicing music, but I don’t really need to do that as much as I used to. The skills are there.”
When Ron accepted a full-time manager position at the Marshall to supplement his income, he thought it was just too much stress. Now, he says, “It’s great because I have a lot of flexibility. I’ve been working more lately because I want to and I can… get the hours, but if I get a gig or something, they make adjustments for me.”
Ron makes it clear that “Musicians live different lifestyles; [their] goal is not necessarily to be rich.” He says,“a lot of people might make a lot of money but… also have car payments and house payments and mortgages” and how he “[doesn’t] have those things to worry about.”
Ron makes ends meet, at the Marshall Chess Club. PAK’s drummer Keith Abrams works in a bicycle shop. Due to Keith’s influence, bicycling is another of Ron’s hobbies; in 2011, he did 3,700 miles, 800 miles in July alone, including two century rides (over 100 rides each). “Because I do music at this ridiculously rough touring level and being 52 years old, I am faced with either quitting or getting in shape.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune columnist Michael Machosky aptly sums up Ron Anderson and PAK: “[Ron Anderson is a] relentless musical mind…. who has a long resume of accomplishment in avant-garde rock, jazz and classical circles. PAK… puts a premium on challenging, unpredictable compositions and dexterous improvisation, weaving noisy, brutal blasts of metallic rock into dense, powerful musical statements that defy the usual limitations of genre.”