Rhys Chatham depends on the Fender Telecaster to create his overtone-powered sound, but has also played
Ibanez models, like the Iceman in this photo. Photo by Sue Rynski

Ever wonder where the seemingly disparate worlds of punk rock, post-modern classical music, and electronics might intersect? Since the mid 1970s, Rhys Chatham has made it his mission in life to find out, and over the years he’s learned that the differences aren’t as cut-and-dried as they seem.

As a student of synthesizer guru Morton Subotnick and avant-garde aesthete La Monte Young, Chatham was awakened early to the possibilities of the stripped-down “minimalist” style of composition that was popularized by Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass—all of whom exerted a profound influence, either as residents or frequent visitors, on New York’s burgeoning downtown art scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But one night in May 1976, Chatham made his first visit to the punk rock mecca CBGB, and his musical direction was changed forever. Then 23, he was playing flute in the Love of Life Orchestra, an avant-garde ensemble with rock proclivities founded by saxophonist and composer Peter Gordon. The two had been walking home from a rehearsal, when it came to light that Chatham had never been to a live rock show.

It’s a story Chatham still relishes retelling today, because it set him on the path to adopting the electric guitar as his main instrument and to writing one of his most enduring works. “Peter just laughed and said, ‘You know, there’s a good band playing at this club down the street. Why don’t we go down and see them?’ And as it turned out, the band was the Ramones. They had just put out their first album, and they were really at their best. I had never seen anything like it in my life—these tall, skinny, handsome guys playing three-chord rock, you know?”

Chatham was jolted by the raw, primal connection to the minimalist music he was playing and composing. He saw how he could define his own hybrid style, in the same way that Young and Riley had drawn from Indian classical music, and Reich from West African music. “Maybe they were playing three chords, and I was only playing one,” Chatham says. “But I felt something in common with them, so I had an epiphany at CBGB. Fortunately for me, the guitarist in the Love of Life Orchestra had just gotten a Stratocaster, so he lent me his Telecaster and he showed me how to play barre chords and a simple blues riff. That put me to work on practicing, and the rest is history.”

“I used three Line 6s. I put one loop at eight seconds, the second one at nine seconds, and the third one at 10 seconds. Then I would send them to the extreme left channel, the extreme right,
and the center.”

Chatham soon formed a short-lived band called Arsenal with guitarist Nina Canal. One day at his apartment, while they were jamming on a one-chord riff in E, Chatham hit the low E string and heard reams of melodies in the overtones. Canal suggested he make a piece of music out of it, which became Guitar Trio—these days G3 for short, and still a staple of Chatham’s live set when he has a band with him. In 2008, he released Guitar Trio Is My Life!, a box set featuring multiple live performances of the piece.

With three guitarists vamping in E over a driving, krautrock-style beat, Chatham had unwittingly joined the ranks of New York’s burgeoning anti-pop “no wave” movement, spearheaded by bands like James Chance and the Contortions, DNA, Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls, and many more. Guitar Trio also became a favorite of Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth, as well as Robert Poss and Band of Susans, and down through the years has influenced Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and other art-rock bands with its hypnotic, slow-building detonation of sound.

Chatham moved to Paris in 1988, but he has always maintained a close connection to the New York music scene and has kept his ears open for young bands with a minimalist streak. In that vein, the Brooklyn-based five-piece Oneida came up on his radar. The band takes a page from the Steve Reich handbook, without overtly paying tribute. They place importance on rhythm and repetitive grooves, but with two fiery guitarists—Shahin “Showtime” Motia and Hanoi “Baby” Jane, who tend to favor Gibson Les Pauls and SGs through Marshall stacks—and the inexhaustible Kid Millions (neé John Colpitts) on drums, they can also switch effortlessly between hard psychedelic rock, freestyle noise-splatter, and ambient drones with sure-footed commitment.

All this impressed Chatham when he first hooked up with Oneida at their rehearsal studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, but he still wondered how they would work together. “I was expecting them to be a rock group with a backbeat, you know? With the kind of music I was doing and with my equipment setup, I wasn’t sure at all. I had a Boomerang III with me, a loop delay system, so it’s a little on the abstract side. I suppose I’ve played that kind of music over a backbeat before, but in general it works best with someone who plays more on the free side of things.”

On their collaborative What’s Your Sign?, Chatham and Oneida share composing credit for the album’s six pieces, which are all rooted in ensemble improvisation.

As it turned out, the band was on the same page. “Kid Millions was playing free, and I was shocked and delighted,” Chatham says. “I’m not a free player myself, because I’m coming out of minimalism and processed music. But the other guys—Barry [London, keyboardist], who’s very handy with electronics and makes his own boxes, he was doing all these noises. And Hanoi Jane and Shahin were really making noise, and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is great!’ After the first session, I said, ‘So, you guys had sympathy for me and gave me something you knew I could play with, right?’ And they had this blank look on their faces, like, ‘Huh? No—this is how we play.’ So it turned out to be a marriage made in heaven.”

Inspired by their sonic chemistry, Oneida and Chatham continued to play and perform together, honing a unique, improvisation-based ensemble sound. To document this collaboration, the musicians booked time at Menegroth the Thousand Caves, a studio run by Colin Marston in New York City’s Queens borough, and hit “record.” This resulted in What’s Your Sign?, an album comprising six compositions credited to Chatham and Oneida.

What’s Your Sign? finds Chatham going a bit maximalist, which is in keeping with a pivot he’s made since he started writing a series of “guitar orchestra” pieces, culminating in 2005’s A Crimson Grail (for 400 Electric Guitars). Chatham’s desire to duplicate that huge, multi-layered sound on his own brought him to the Line 6 DL4 delay modeler—three of them. Set to loop on eight-, nine- and 10-second intervals, together they created the effect of a regenerative, ever-changing melody. Eventually Chatham switched to the Boomerang III, which allowed him to confine the process to one box.

These spiraling sounds emerge in the sawtoothed throb of the opening track “You Get Brighter” and in the sheets of Eno-like atmospherics that elevate “Civil Weather” to oddly mesmeric heights. Chatham also explores the distinctive dropped-D just intonation tuning that has become his trademark on “The Well Tuned Guitar,” which marks the first time he has used the tuning in a group setting. Reveling in its strangeness, What’s Your Sign? is essentially a return to the “no wave” ethos that Chatham helped spark back in the late ’70s with Guitar Trio.

Throughout his career, Chatham has tried numerous electric guitars, including an Ovation Breadwinner, an Ibanez Iceman, and, more recently, an Ibanez S series, but he’s never strayed far from the Telecaster, which he uses as the basis for all his composing and recording. “That’s the sound that I always have in mind,” he says. “I have nothing against Gibsons, and I love playing them, too. The distortion sound of a Gibson going through a Hiwatt is just incredible. But for the compositions I do, it’s a different sound. I’m really after that twangy Telecaster sound.”