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Greg Fox of Guardian Alien Explains How Pho Broke His Heart

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By Brad Cohan

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When it comes to Greg Fox, nuclear percussionist for meditative psych slayers Guardian Alien, the vibes emanating from him are truly copacetic and positively trippy. Case in point: just take a gander at Guardian's bohemian-damaged video for the title track to its gargantuan mind-fuck record from 2012, See The World Given To One Entity.

But shit-tons of activity has engorged Fox’s universe since See The World raged. In no particular order, he aligned with drummer extraordinaire Kid Millions in his Man Forever percussive army, joined in on the experimental sound sculpting action with Zs, skronks it up with his own electronics-mauling trip GDFX, improvises across the New York City landscape with the likes of knob-twiddling abuser G. Lucas Crane and Yeah Yeah Yeahs beats dude Brian Chase and, if that action wasn’t enough, lends his drums insanity to noise-mongers Skeletons and PC Worship and Icelandic sound weaver Ben Frost while offering up his first solo record under his own name (Mitral Transmission). 

In short, dude is busy.

However, Guardian Alien remains Fox’s main gig, and along with voice/ synth manipulator Alex Drewchin and guitarist noodler Bernard Gann, the trio are back with cerebral, brain-bending conceptual behemoth Spiritual Emergency, and on its latest, Fox treks even more out there into the stratosphere. Inspired by the deep opus Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes A Crisis by famed Czech psychiatrist and LSD proponent Stanislov Grof (apparently, his speeches serve as stellar tour van fodder to pass the time on the road), Fox and his cohorts singularly intersect Grof’s argument for treating crises—not as mental illness with the use of heavy meds, shrinks and institutionalization, but within the promise of spiritual emergence and renewal—with freakazoid minimalist tribal beatage, waves of ecstatic post-jazz noise and dreamily warped voices melted with trippy samples of Grof speaking of "spiritual emergencies."

That hyperbole aside, Fox also takes his culinary delights—particularly Pho—pretty seriously. When I last sat down with Guardian’s resident overlord at his favorite Vietnamese joint in New York’s Chinatown, he was monumentally bummed over its mediocre showing. Nearly two years later, Fox is feeling the effects, so much so that he settled for ramen at Williamsburg noodle hub Ramen Yebisu, before a gig with Very Loud Objects at Brooklyn’s Roulette. On the convo tap was Guardian, playing the upcoming Austin Psych Fest, Mitral Transmission, an improv set with Colin Stetson and Trevor Dunn, and a bunch of other stuff. 

Noisey: It’s been nearly two years since that fateful Pho lunch at Cong Ly on Hester Street. How have you dealt with it?
Greg Fox: I love Pho ideally but that place [Cong Ly], and you were with me, my heart was broken—you were there. I tried it again one more time and it was over. Some friends helped elucidate to me that actually Cong Ly might have never been that good. The place on Mulberry Street we were originally going to meet [for this interview] is a place called Viet Huong that I’ve been going to, which is good. They also have a bigger menu with a lot of vegetarian dishes, so it’s better for bringing vegetarian friends. But I’ve also been having—I have to look out for what meat I’m eating. I’ve had to be more conscious of my diet. I’m just getting closer and closer to this thing where I’m not going to eat meat unless I know exactly where the meat is coming from. I’ve gotten more sensitive to the food I eat so I have to be more conscious about it. I’ve been experimenting with cutting out different things, like meat, or gluten, etc, and seeing what effect their absence has on my health.

So you’ve never given Cong Ly another chance?
I stopped going to Cong Ly and then my folks found out about this other Vietnamese place [Viet Huong] and they told me about it. I went and tried it out on my birthday last year with my cousin Adam, and it was good and not expensive. But it’s not the same as Cong Ly; I’m not friends with the guy that runs the place, they don’t know my name, they don’t know what I want to order—they don’t know me. That other place—I knew everybody. That was a special thing. But, you know, good things end. I went back to Cong Ly but they just started to buy cheaper noodles. It’s definitely over a year since I’ve been there and I miss it. Viet Huong is pretty good but honestly I haven’t been so into pho these days, as per the health and diet stuff…whereas it once seemed medicinal, it now doesn’t sit as well…

It must be difficult to maintain a healthy diet on tour.
That’s super hard but increasingly I’ve been travelling with people who care about that. So, if everybody cares, then you go out of your way a little bit to get something.

Let’s talk about Spiritual Emergency. It’s a deep record. How did the concept of using Stan Grof’s book as its impetus come about? 
It was when we were on tour with Starring after See The World… came out and we had a long drive—I don’t remember where from—but it was a 12-hour drive to Kansas City. We listened to this book on tape. It was, basically, Stan Grof talking about his history and his work; it was long enough where we listened to the whole thing over the twelve-hour drive. It was totally captivating. So we were listening to it and he just started talking about the whole spiritual emergency and it just seemed like “Oh, that’s that.” I think partially it was an arbitrary decision because we liked what we listened to. It’s funny because when the decision was made to have that be the title and to be thinking like that, I didn’t make any parallels to myself or anybody personally—there was nothing personal. But as it turns out, there is a lot that is personal about it. A lot of stuff happened in my life in the last year that required dealing with in a way that was hard, and a lot of it ongoing. I think that is true for a lot of people.

Did the record help you get through the personal shit going on in your life at the time?
Not while making it so much, but after the piece took on that title and I started thinking about it more and being aware of how I was feeling and what I was thinking about as we were playing, I started making some connections that I hadn’t made. But then in hearing other people talk to me about it and pulling the things they pulled from it, I realized there was meaning there that I just wasn’t aware of. It just felt to me like it was time to lay an egg. Sometimes you lay an egg and it’s a golden egg and sometimes you lay an egg and it’s not even an egg at all. You gotta cut the cord—that’s how I think and that’s how I move from thing to thing right now.

I’m thinking Spiritual Emergency may be the only record ever to feature samples from a psychiatrist talking about his/her theories. Where did you grab Grof’s parts from? Are you worried you may get sued?
It’s from that lecture we listened to on that 12-hour drive. I admire his work. I knew of him because I had read about him. I used to read the magazine maps and he was a figure often referenced in that. We didn’t ask (for permission to use his voice on the record). I hope it’s okay [Laughs]. If I get in trouble from this and get in touch with Stanislov Grof—who’s still alive or his estate—I’d be happy to talk to them about it and I would apologize thoroughly. I mean, it’s not like the record is going to make any money; it’s not like they’d be entitled (to anything). But look, I’ll give them everything. It’s just a title that we liked—it sounded good and it sounded cool and we listened to this thing that we thought was good to listen to and was cool.

You mentioned it was made during a weird time and not in the best of circumstances for the band.
It was made during a transitional period of the band. We didn’t have a lot of dough, we only had two days in the studio, and we had to track everything in one day. I didn’t have any expectations for it. It felt to me the band was kind of transitioning and everything came together to the degree that we had the time in the studio to work with Wharton Tiers, who I’ve wanted to work with for a while, and Bernard (Gann) also—for longer than me—has been aware of him and admired his work. So we were excited about that and Wharton was so great to work with. I would love to work with him again. Basically, the plan seemed to be to make this record, get down what we’ve been doing live and then, once that was done, start thinking about the next thing.

Were you not happy with it the first time you heard it after it was done?
The first time I listened back after I got the bounces from Wharton was in Amsterdam. I flew to the Netherlands to start a tour with Zs. I went to a coffee shop and I got stoned. I then went back to the hotel room and listened to it for the first time. It gave me some perspective and I was able to step away from myself a little bit and really experience it. I really liked it, especially the opening track (“Tranquilizer”). On See The World…, I did a ton of editing. We had recorded all of this material and I stitched it all together into the record. This time, that wasn’t at all the case. Spiritual Emergency is live from beginning to end, pretty much. It’s honest; it is what we were doing at the time. I am happy about it, I’m happy to have documented and I’m happy to have worked with Wharton on it, especially, because his involvement make it what it is. Spiritual Emergency came out last week and I’m past it. Definitely. But I am happy with the record. I went through a long period of time after we recorded it that I didn’t listen to it all.

You’ve also been playing some of the record live for quite a while in the Guardian live-set.
The title track (“Spiritual Emergency”) we had been playing live as the bulk of the live show. But in a similar way to how See The World…was written—actually with even less event-oriented parts—totally not composed pieces but just having its indicators. We’ve been doing that and the other stuff on the record was improvised in the studio.

Spiritual Emergencydoes seem like the natural progression from See The World…, given the presence of yoga, meditation, and those related forms. Do you see Spiritual Emergency as the culmination of that?
I think so and it’s also an eschewing of certain aspects too. I meditate sometimes but I don’t have a strong interest in yoga. I have an interest in T’ai chi and Qigong—and I have studied Taoism and the I Ching. But I don’t want to talk about it too much. I really don’t have anything to say about any of that stuff other than that it has influenced and helped me at times throughout the last ten years. I recommend that anyone who is interested in checking out some of those things do the research and find out what works for them. So, I think it’s interesting because this had nothing to do with the original intention of the title [Spiritual Emergency]. But when I think about it now, this sort of breakdown of what’s real— what’s really there—of dealing with things and not stopping the water from overtaking the rock.

The album art of See The World… had an awesome backstory culled from one of your meditation experiences. The cover of Spiritual Emergency is pretty rad, too. Anything behind that?
We took this picture while we were on tour. Bernard crawled under the table one night, we took the picture and Alex was like “that should be the album cover.” She may have been kidding but then it was “Okay, that was that.” That’s the thing: the decisions that make themselves are ones I tend to trust the most deeply.

What’s the deal now? Guardian has been pared down to a trio?
Now it’s me Bernard and Alex. Eli [Winograd] moved upstate and Turner [Williams] went to Alabama to do grad school. It’s just the three of us now. We played the other day with Justin Frye of PC Worship sitting in with us. He and I have been playing music together for longer than most people I’ve played with. So that’s cool to have him come in.

Would you say you are essentially Guardian Alien? Do your bandmates look to you?
Yeah. Guardian is my band—I figure the tours out, I book the shows, I do all that administrative stuff. So that’s a good question: “What is Guardian Alien?” I’m figuring that out. This whole band, doing Guardian, has been a whole ongoing lesson for me about what it is and how to be a band leader, how to do ideas I want to do and also to allow people to safely bring their A game to a situation and feel like they won’t regret having given of themselves in ways that I’ve felt I have in the past in other situations. It’s been a constant learning experience and this record is about learning more about how I do and don’t want to operate.

What if Alex or Bernard didn’t want to do it anymore? Would you “replace” them and use whoever is around as Guardian?
I don’t think I could replace them. Guardian started as this fully revolving door and then it solidified and then somebody left and then someone came in and then another person came in…it’s been revolving, certainly. I wouldn’t make a decision like that hypothetically. I don’t know if Guardian Alien is going to be the band I do forever or it’s going to make one more record, most likely something in between. Guardian has potential. I have a lot of confidence in the new stuff I’ve been working out. But no matter what, I still have no expectations for it.

So what’s your day-to-day? Do you meditate daily?
I have my practices and I have my exploration of my inner universe. But I don’t want to misrepresent or create a false image of who I am or use meditation and inner exploration as a selling point. I’m not trying to attract people who are into meditation to my music, per se. I’ve gone in and out of having daily routines. I do it and then I slack on it, then I learn something that teaches me something new. One of the things on my web page used to say “Daoist Practitioner” and my definition of that was I do some Shen Gong. I also have enough of a working knowledge of the I-Ching where I can give readings. I have an intuitive sense about it and I can actually do it in a way that people have found helpful. But I took that off the site because I think it’s actually a semi-bogus claim and I don’t ultimately feel the need to tell people that about myself. I’m not walking around in yellow robes and shit. I don’t have a routine daily practice and I don’t know enough to preach anything to anybody. I’ve increasingly felt important about being honest and not bullshitting myself or anybody else. Part of that probably is I have anxiety about myself that isn’t even necessarily true, so I don’t think I have necessarily participated in bullshitting anybody. But, because of my relative anxiety about bullshitting people, I stay away from anything that feels like preaching. I’m down to talk about this stuff casually, always—and it’s not just one subject, it’s a continuum. I have paranoia about the world, the government and shit like that. But then I have an understanding through Daoism about the world in a bigger way, and through that I can transmute that paranoia into an optimistic feeling about things, and be a better version of myself in daily life. That’s the most important aspect about all this stuff to me.

How did your solo record, Mitral Transmission, and working with legendary jazz drummer Milford Graves, come about?
A bunch of people mentioned I should meet Milford, Kevin Shea being one of them that I most clearly remember. Kevin is one of my favorite drummers. Anyway, I had a couple of people over the years say that I should reach out to Milford. David First was another one who mentioned his name to me, and introduced me to a friend Jim Puglise who had studied with Milford. So I tracked down Milford’s info, reached out and six months later or so and he invited me over to his house. We met and he said he wanted to do his homework—his detective work on me or whatever—and then I got a call back and he invited me over again. We met a couple of times, hung out in his basement and then we did the heart work.

So in what way does Milford hook you up?
There’s a couple of different stethoscopes that are running into a computer, there’s a recording made of the resting heart rate and that’s basically processed through some software that ends up spitting out a MIDI roll which has the melodies and rhythms of your heart. So I had a couple of these scores and I used them to start writing the music.

How did you end up splicing together that with the sounds on the solo record?
[I used] samples of just a couple of instruments and different arrangements of that data with some editing. I moved a lot of stuff around. I finally played some of it for Milford and he was pleased, so I pursued releasing the music.

How imposing would it be do pull of performing material off Mitral Transmission live?
I don’t know steel drummers, you know what I mean? The record has  steel drums on it. So if I want to try to do that live, I’d either have to rearrange it for other instruments, which I could do, and might end up doing. But either way I don’t have much experience doing that. I’ve reached out to Matt Mehlan about working some of the solo record material into arrangements for ensemble playing. So that’s on the horizon. I’ll release another record of this music. Everything I’ve done has been basically zero budget…to get some money from a label or something to make something more ambitious, to be able to pay musicians fairly for their contributions—that is a goal.

The amount of people you play with is sick and you’re not shy about mounting praise on what you learn from each of them. Plus you credit your family.
My mom is the best. I’m really thankful for my family, they are great. It’s important to have mentors, that’s something thing my mom says.

It’s cool…I’m still figuring it out, whatever it is. I’ve figured out some of it [since we last spoke], which has been really. I think it’s always about not realizing certain things are possible and then finding out that they are and pursuing them. Just to be able to get to meet and play with all these folks and learn from people, that’s what I really enjoy. But I’m happy and thankful for the fact that people like, care about, and are interested in the music I’m making because it’s creating the opportunity to live my life doing what I love to do. I feel very thankful. I made sacrifices to pursue all this and those sacrifices seem to be bringing some return. Thank you, universe.

Nearly three years after quitting Liturgy, people seem hesitant to let go.
It seems to be shaking. Some people will say it forever, maybe. I don’t really care about it anymore, to be honest.

Can you see yourself being in another metal project?
I like metal. I miss playing metal somewhat, but to be honest, I’m not interested at arriving at the conclusion that quickly; I’m more interested in employing the techniques as I do and seeing what else can be done, because I can do the same thing I do in a metal band in Guardian or with another project. I just play drums the way I play drums. But, you know, it’s not metal, apparently. It’s funny—one time after a Zs show, some dude came up to Sam (Hilmer) and was getting angry or weird with him about Zs appropriating black metal or something because I played a blast-beat for a measure. Seriously, who cares? Of all the things in the world to dedicate your energy to... What makes it what? I’d be bored if I was in a band that played predictable music. I can get down with listening to music like that but I don’t really want to play it. I always want to change it up.

 

Brad Cohan loves noodles.

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