Living Colour’s guitarist and the ex-Ornette Coleman bassist let their Free Form Funky Freqs flags fly on the new Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy.
How many bands can pinpoint the exact number of times they’ve played together? “It’s rare,” acknowledges guitarist Vernon Reid of Free Form Funky Freqs, the power trio he co-leads with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. Because “Free Form” is meant quite seriously—not a note of the music is planned in advance—every Freqs performance is a wholly unrepeatable event with its own distinct marker. This includes the three FFFF studio albums to date. The just-released Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy was performance number 73. Urban Mythology, Vol. 1, the band’s 2008 debut, was number three, after kickoff gigs at Tonic in New York and Tritone in Philadelphia (both defunct). Bon Vivant, the 2013 sophomore release, was number 15.
Owing to pandemic isolation, however, Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy was the first FFFF project to unfold asynchronously. First, Weston laid down his drums. Tacuma responded on bass. Reid brought up the rear with a pair of signature model Paul Reed Smiths and an abundance of digital and analog stompboxes, amp modelers, guitar synth floor units, and laptop-driven software synthesizers. There were no rules, save for this ironclad dictum: one uninterrupted take per track, no fixes, no overdubs. If it’s not “an organic improvised scenario,” in Tacuma’s words, it’s not Free Form Funky Freqs. It’s something else.
“I always dig an amp that’s gonna shake the room.” —Jamaaladeen Tacuma
“I just closed my eyes and pretended I was onstage with those guys,” Tacuma recalls. “The key was to keep the integrity of our process,” says Reid. “It was kind of like a self-imposed honor system.” This is, after all, a band that makes a point of not soundchecking together at gigs. “We have to explain this to house engineers,” Reid continues. “We’ll get sounds, then maybe check bass and drums, then guitar and drums. But we make it clear that the three of us are going to play only when it’s actually time to play.” To do otherwise would corrupt the method.
While their previous albums were live shows, the new FFFF opus was improvised in the studio—one artist at a time!
This improvisational purism makes sense given the band members’ overlapping histories in what Reid calls “the loose circle around Ornette Coleman.” The legendary alto saxophonist and free-jazz pioneer hired Tacuma for his groove-oriented ’70s band Prime Time, when the bassist was only 19. He later hired Weston, as well, at 17. “I was playing with [founding Prime Time drummer] Ronald Shannon Jackson,” adds Reid. “Calvin had played with Blood [experimental blues guitarist/singer James ‘Blood’ Ulmer].” There was a shared vein of experience in the contemporary avant-garde, and yet, as Tacuma observed to Reid one night, the three had never played together as a unit.
“We have to explain this to house engineers. We’ll get sounds, then maybe check bass and drums, then guitar and drums. But we make it clear that the three of us are going to play only when it’s actually time to play.” —Vernon Reid
Reid, of course, had also ascended to rock stardom with Living Colour in the late ’80s and cofounded the innovative Black Rock Coalition. For decades, each one of the Freqs had straddled genres and blown open the conversation about creative music in their time. It was practically fated for this band to form.
Vernon Reid’s Gear
Vernon Reid freqs-out on one of his PRS Custom Signature S2 Velas.
Photo by Sound Evidence
- Two Paul Reed Smith Custom Vernon Reid Signature S2 Velas (one with EMGs, one with DS pickups)
- 1958 Gibson ES-345 (on “Earth”)
- Line 6 Helix
- Kemper Profiler
Strings & Picks
- D’Addario NYXLs (.011–.049)
- Dunlop 205s, Brass TeckPicks, V-Picks
- Graph Tech TUSQ 2.0 mm (“It’s kind of a fetish,” Reid says of his fascination with picks.)
- Moog MF-107 FreqBox
- Red Panda Tensor
- DigiTech Space Station
- Eventide H9
- Chase Bliss Tonal Recall
- Chase Bliss Dark World
- Boss SY-300
- Roland GI-20 Guitar MIDI Interface
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere software synth
- Arturia Pigments software synth
Studio production for FFFF has been divvied up evenly: Reid produced Urban Mythology, Vol. 1, Tacuma took the helm on Bon Vivant, and Weston brought the remote recording of Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy across the finish line. Each album bears the imprint of its producer in some way.
Weston named the new album and the individual tracks as well, and the meaning of it all becomes clear when you pull up a map of the Milky Way (one of three galaxies, along with Andromeda and Triangulum, that dominates what is known as the Local Group). “Near Arm,” “Outer Arm,” “Norma Arm,” “Perseus Arm,” “Sagittarius Arm,” “Orion Spur,” “Scutum Centaurus,” “Far 3 kpc”—these are names that astronomers have given to the Milky Way’s various regions. In this environment, “Earth” and “Sun” (two more track titles) are just infinitesimally small dots.
“Bill Connors’ playing is so full of fire, but it’s also emotionally vulnerable in a way.” —Vernon Reid
The album title is also a conscious reference to Return to Forever’s 1973 album Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy—the fusion supergroup’s one recording to feature guitarist Bill Connors. “That record was very important in my development,” says Reid. “Bill Connors’ playing on it is so full of fire, but it’s also emotionally vulnerable in a way. I was very affected by the compositions, as well. When Calvin mentioned the title, it put this project into a frame for me—the idea of spatial ambience—and that did affect my choices for sounds.”
Those sounds are an amalgam of raw, plugged-in lead guitar crunch and otherwordly sonic glitter: notes that start as notes but become starbursts, or decay like pyrotechnic embers; chordal shapes that overlap and gather into big nebulous clouds. With his seemingly limitless tech-heavy rig, Reid has all frequencies covered.
Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Gear
Jamaaladeen Tacuma brings his epic funk at the 2003 Ponderosa Stomp festival in New Orleans, where he performed with James “Blood” Ulmer and FFFF drummer Calvin Weston.
Photo by Joseph A. Rosen
- 1974 Fender Jazz Bass
- Aguilar Tone Hammer 500
- Aguilar 2x12s
- Korg ToneWorks G5 Synth Bass Processor
- JAM Wahcko
- JAM WaterFall
- JAM LucyDreamer
- La Bella various-gauge sets
The groove is just as essential, and Tacuma and Weston know how to bring it, whether it’s a slow shuffle (“Perseus Arm”), a mid-tempo Meters-like vibe (“Norma Arm”), or an outbreak of fast, full-tilt abstraction (“Far 3 kpc,” “Sun”). Regardless of feel, Tacuma’s criterion for a bass sound is straightforward: “I always dig an amp that’s gonna shake the room. I mean, I need that room-shaker. Coming up in Philly, hearing R&B groups at the Uptown Theater, which was like the Apollo, as long as that bass was shakin’ the room, that was the most important thing. Aguilar has proven to be a wonderful addition to my setup for the clarity and punchiness, and the ability to dial in certain sounds that I want.” Holding up the Korg Toneworks G5 synth-bass unit that he used on Hymn, during our Zoom call, he adds: “I’m not really a pedal guy, but now and then I’ll bring one out for a special black-tie occasion.”
Ultimately, what explains FFFF’s ability to create together on the fly is musical intelligence and empathetic listening. When Reid’s guitar is more enveloping and spacious and legato, Tacuma’s playing might get busier, and vice versa. “If you go outside right now,” Tacuma observes, “somebody’s walking, somebody’s running. Somebody’s listening, somebody’s talking. Somebody’s eating, somebody’s drinking. All these things are happening, and with music it’s the same thing.” For Reid, as well, deciding when to go for maximum synthesized mayhem (“Galactic Bar”) or a cleaner, more identifiably guitaristic tone (“Earth”) is a matter of attending to the moment. “It’s different than dealing with songs that have a verse-chorus-bridge,” he says. “This is a whole different kind of flow.”
“I’m not really a pedal guy, but now and then I’ll bring one out for a special black-tie occasion.” —Jamaaladeen Tacuma
When discussion turns to Tacuma’s other projects, such as his 2017 album Gnawa Soul Experience, the bassist suggests a link between the FFFF worldview and the time he shared with ethnic Gnawa musicians in Essaouira, Morocco. “Musically, I learned so much,” he recalls. “When they play all night and they don’t have anything written in front of them, and they’re just grooving and going higher and higher in the music, that’s basically what we do, when you put it in perspective. People relate to that; they can understand that.”With every Freqs encounter, the three bring new elements and ideas they’ve absorbed in the interim, and this keeps the music fresh and evolving. Tacuma and Weston continue to nourish their local Philly scene, mentoring and giving exposure to younger players. Tacuma’s annual Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival always provides a burst of energy. Living Colour is still percolating since the release of Shade, its sixth album, in 2017. Meanwhile Reid has kept additional irons in the fire, including the Zig Zag Power Trio (with bassist Melvin Gibbs and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun) and other projects. If he, Tacuma, and Weston keep up the pace, they could soon hit the big 100—the Freqs’ centenary performance. Stay tuned for that album.
Free Form Funky Freqs Live | Ch0 | 2012
Guitarists Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen shove the envelope on the band’s new album, stomping in sonic mud puddles and mashing electronic music and hip-hop as they abandon their comfort zone.
From the British Invasion of the ’60s to the punks of ’77 to the nascent days of heavy metal and shoegaze, the U.K. music scene has often been the harbinger of what’s next for guitar. To many, Bristol-based post-punk unit Idles’ music represents that next step. Idles’ albums are confrontational, heartfelt, politically outspoken, and don’t sound like anything else. The band’s 2018 release Joy as an Act of Resistance hit the top five in the U.K. charts, enjoyed nearly universal critical acclaim, and earned the group a Mercury Prize nomination.
While many critics focused on Idles’ enigmatic frontman Joe Talbot’s poetic lyrics and brash delivery, Joy as an Act of Resistance was full of writhing, rhythmic, anti-rock guitar work that was equal parts clever and reckless—via guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan. (Drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Adam Devonshire complete the band.) It was a blast of fresh air at a time when many popular rock bands had lost their teeth, were boiling their songwriting down to an algorithm, or were wistfully mining the genre’s past.
In a small brick room deep in the bowels of La Frette Studios—tucked away just outside of Paris—Idles and producers Nick Launay (Killing Joke, Public Image Ltd, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Adam “Atom” Greenspan (Refused, Anna Calvi) crafted and honed Ultra Mono, the highly anticipated follow up to Joy as an Act of Resistance. Bowen and Kiernan took a decidedly different and novel approach to penning the new album’s 12 songs. The pair began the writing process by defining a sound palette for the album via pedalboards populated with some of the least musical and weirdest stomps they’d each collected. Over-the-top fuzzes, alien-sounding filters, and a boutique glitch box from Belgium all played a major role. The anti-shredders’ effects experiments were the direct starting point for much of Ultra Mono’s songs and guitar parts—many of which Bowen confesses “really wouldn’t sound like anything without the effects.” The album’s lead single, “Grounds,” is a great example of this effects-first approach. It’s an anthem of solidarity for the anti-racism movement, built on the back of a lone repeated note played through a Red Panda Raster delay. The song is an exercise in weaponized simplicity and atonality, yet somehow wildly catchy.
Kiernan and Bowen often use the guitar like synthesists or drummers on Ultra Mono, harnessing the percussive side of the instrument as a trigger and controller for the sounds they coax out of their pedal menageries. Relying on effects-processed rhythmic passages in the same way a producer uses samples gives the albumthe rhythmic bounce and swagger of hip-hop, but presented with the snarling sonics of a rock band playing through high-powered tube amps at full tilt. That trick was further helped along with a dose of post-production magic by producer/engineer Kenny Beats, who added programming and was part of an arduous four-month mixing process.
The result is that Ultra Mono is a whirlwind of hulking fuzz, clanging dissonance, synth-inspired bleeps and bloops, and notes bent so far out of shape that they’d break if they were bones. While there’s an underpinning of dry garage-rock rhythm 6-string that helps propel this effects-laden guitar colossus and provides counterpoint, it all comes together to make something genuinely original. As we enter the probable peak of the effects-pedal renaissance, and at a time when our collective reality is just too absurd for loud rock bands to not have something of substance to say, Ultra Mono is a record deeply representative of the moment.
Despite Ultra Mono’s anger and serious subjects, Bowen and Kiernan are affable gear nerds that don’t take themselves too seriously. The pair have even taken advantage of the unexpected downtime Covid-19 has foisted upon us by starting their own phonetically named YouTube series, Genks, which finds the duo exploring the inner workings of Idles’ tunes, their favorite effects, and interviewing notable guitarists that they mutually dig.
Premier Guitar caught up with Idles’ pedal pushers by phone to discuss their effects-based approach to writing Ultra Mono, the exotic and mundane gear used to craft their band’s latest, how Gang of Four, Electric Wizard, French DJs, and Wu-Tang Clan all found their way into the sonic stew, and how seemingly useless sounds can make great music.
You’ve said the guitar tones on Ultra Mono arelike weapons and that the album was written around sounds rather than riffs. That really shows in your playing, which is often primitive and rhythmic—like you’re acting like drummers.
Lee Kiernan: That was a goal. We wanted to have a lot more rhythmic power and work as a team towards that. A lot of the time, songs started with bass and drums, because that’s always the backbone of our music, and we’ll push those ideas with guitars to make it bigger. Something we really tried to do on this album that we didn’t do in the past is give each other space and also focus on playing together. Bowen and I play as a unit together a lot on Ultra Mono—often playing the same thing at the same time to add more emphasis and power to a single idea.
Mark Bowen: When we set out to make this album, there was something about rock sensibilities and production that had too much deference to the guitar and how we felt the guitars should sound. The thing about guitars is, frequency-wise, they can kind of get in the way of everything. What we really wanted to do is have the guitars either play percussively or play to support the bass. Otherwise, the frequency bandwidth of the guitars was narrowed down to allow other things to really pop in the mix. The opposite also happens a lot on the album for an effect, too, where the guitars deliberately take up all the frequency real estate for impact. All of these tracks were really written around the idea of us all supporting one musical part at a time. That concept was key during the writing, so the recording process was really about making sure that each of the instruments had the impact and weight we wanted them to have.
TIDBIT: “The mix on this album was so much of the trick, and we took four months to mix it,” says co-guitarist Mark Bowen. “We wanted that hip-hop edge.”
Flourishes of atonal guitar are a huge part of Ultra Mono’s sound. How much of that noise-making was baked-in from the songwriting process, and what was the overall approach to experimenting with effects and noise-making in the studio?
Kiernan: Most of it. Bowen and I are always on the hunt for new pedals that are weird. When we were writing this album, we’d go to random guitar shops and ask them for the weirdest pedals they had. It may sound useless, but it still might touch you somehow. Every now and then, a pedal that does something really weird will kick you into gear. Or sometimes you just need to slam a weird pedal with some fuzz or find the weird noises hiding in it. We’ll both admit we’re not the best guitarists and relying on sound-making is our key and really a major part of what we do.
Bowen: The noise-making had to be thought of from the start. We basically created a sound palette first, and once we created a sound, that sound informed the riffs. The riffs on this one really wouldn’t sound like anything without the effects we used. So there was a lot of time spent tweaking, but it was really important to the overall writing of the album.
Do you have any advice on finding the musically useful ideas hiding in deliberately ugly-sounding effects?
Bowen: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we’re all playing almost like drummers. If you’ve got a sound that you initially feel is musically useless, try using it rhythmically and use it as an adjunct to a snare hit or use it where a high-hat might be in an electronic song. It sounds like nothing else when you replace drum parts with a weird guitar sound. Another big thing is if you get a sound that you think is great, but you can’t necessarily see a traditional musical place for it, building a song around that sound is a big thing for us. If you look at “Danke” and the sound that almost sounds like a piece of metal being whipped in the middle of that, that sound was the starting point for that song.
Kiernan: A lot of what I use is fuzz, and I especially like the ones Death By Audio makes. They’re punishing. Their pedals are just brutal and I like to slam fuzzes into different things to get unique sounds. Essentially what I do a lot of the time in this band is find a big noise and then bend the strings to make it sound like something alive and dynamic more than just a blast of noise.