Feeling Free: A Conversation With Duane Pitre

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I first knew the name Duane Pitre from my skateboarding days. It was the late ’90s and his style had a natural, authentic flow to it, blending old-school technique with what was then a newer, more technical approach. In many ways, his segment from the Footage skate video, backed with music from Dinosaur Jr., encapsulates the mood of this era: organic, without pretense, simple, and just plain fun. There’s nothing contrived here.

It was then a few years before I heard the name Duane Pitre again, but this time, it was Duane Pitre, self-taught avant-garde composer. Still the same Pitre, following the same flow in a new medium. He’s been busy over the past few years, with an impressive CV that has taken him everywhere from MoMA to New Orleans to Europe – and with his new album, Feel Free  (Important Records, 2012) – to new, unreached corners of the aural universe.

The following conversation is made of a few-weeks-long e-mail thread, where Duane and I discussed everything from skateboarding to experimental music to life in New Orleans. With an impending wedding and trip to Europe, it was gracious of Duane to give time to this conversation in the midst of his busy life. It was, I hope, an enlightening conversation for both of us, and I look forward to seeing what else Duane comes up with in the coming years.

ANOBIUM: Where did you get your start in music? Or, what would you consider to be your musical ‘roots’?

DUANE PITRE: Do you mean when I started actively playing an instrument, or when I became interested in music in general? (The latter is the path that led me to the former.)

A: Let’s start with the latter.

DP: I suppose I should go back further than when I consciously became excited about music – music that actually shaped a path that I would take. When I look at this path, it takes me further and further back in time.

My ‘pre-path’ is classic rock, as far as I can remember. The South embraced it with open arms. It was in the airwaves and – in my opinion – it made up a great part of the 70’s ethos. My (young) parents were all about it. They even named me after Duane Allman (I was born shortly after he died). Maybe 12 or 13 years ago, I started to dive back into these roots, allowing it, on some level, to influence my output.

The first records I chose on my own were two 7-inch records: Devo’s “Whip It” and “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls. I can’t remember which one I bought first. This led to bands like Duran Duran, Musical Youth, Bow Wow Wow (I remember waiting up late to watch their video on early episodes of 120 Minutes) and a lot of the other music that was on the radio and MTV at the time.

A few years later, soon after I started skateboarding at age 11, I moved St. Petersburg, Florida for a short time. I met two brothers (Lance & Scott Conklin) and they were into shit I didn’t know about; odd punk bands (like Toilet Birth) and early Beastie Boys stuff (hardcore Cookie Puss-era sounds). That year, I saw the License To Ill Tour – it was pretty awesome. Skateboarding started to introduce me to things that lived on the “outside”; counter-culture. All of this Florida/Conklin action was the first time I felt like a “bad-ass.” It gave me the feeling that I was a “rebel” of some sort, which is funny to me, because I was a pretty quiet and mild-mannered kid. Maybe that’s why it was appealing to me.

Four-or-so years after that – listening to metal, rap, and other stuff – I was back in New Orleans. I made friends there who I still hang out with, even now, having again moved back to NOLA in late ’09. Around that time, I started to learn about the bands that shaped my musical life to come. Many of the SST bands/albums featured on the Speed Freaks [1989] skateboard video would be instrumental in the start of the journey. I really liked bands like Bad Brains and Firehose, but it was Dinosaur Jr. that was “the one” that stimulated (and EXCITED ME!) in an entirely new way.

I could write about this journey for days, so to simplify/shorten it: after Dinosaur Jr. there was Industrial Music (Ministry was a favorite), My Bloody Valentine (Loveless is one of my Top 3 All-Time Favorite records… maybe even #1), and beautifully dark music as such.

Next – and this was probably the start of a second chapter or a “turn in the road” on my path – I learned about singular artists (not bands) with feet in the academic music world. People like Terry Riley, Glenn Branca, and Brian Eno. However, I didn’t fully understand the worth of the former two until some years later. When I did finally start to understand, I also learned of La Monte Young around the same time. I got really into a limited version (I focus on a small “pool” of things at a time) of the academic avant-garde and experimental music world.

This led me to the traditional world music of Japan, India and the Middle East, all of which have had a big impact on my current work. As I was discovering world music, I also started getting into non-traditional jazz. I kind of ignored jazz most of my life because it was ubiquitous growing up in NOLA. When I was growing up, I ignored the things I grew up around, usually searching for new or ‘more exciting’ subjects.

A: I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to tend towards jazz/experimental/world music via rock ‘n roll and punk. How do you feel that this ‘musical lineage’ has affected your life in other ways, outside of music? (i.e.: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Skateboarding or punk rock?)

DP: It has definitely made me a researcher, no doubt. I like to investigate and find out how, why, and when? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I embrace variation and change in life. Or, better put, I kind of NEED those things, or else I get bored and feel unfulfilled. I can’t say if researching this ‘lineage’ made me this way, or if it was the other way around. I feel I’m pretty open-minded with music and don’t shut things down because they don’t fit within a certain scene or mindset. I’m appreciative of that, and it’s likely that this is a result of the musical path I took and all of the “places” I’ve been.

And although I undoubtedly had a liking for music before skateboarding, I credit skateboarding with opening new possibilities in my life – especially “odd” music, and counter-culture in general.

A: Let’s talk about Feel Free. How did this album come about?

DP: Well, the album consists of a single piece of music by the same name. The piece was started in January 2010 and was a direct result, I believe, of my moving from NYC to New Orleans in October 2009. By contrast, New Orleans had more space (aurally and physically), was quieter, had more trees and cleaner air, and was drastically more laid-back than NYC. Being affected by my surroundings as much as I am – as many artists are – my first “New Orleans piece” naturally reflected all of these new environmental and psychological changes.

That was the set-up of ‘head space’: I was slowing down, mentally and physically. Around this time, I was experimenting with news ways (for myself) of accomplishing a sound organization method I’d be working with for the last four years. Previously, I carried these out via the provision of instructions (producing controlled indeterminacy) to an actual group of performers. Being removed from such performers in New Orleans, I started working on a new Max/MSP patch, which was performer-less, though it utilized a similar style of structured randomness.

I was about to put my modified Bowed Harmonic-Guitars (the Justly Intonated guitars used to perform and record my Origin album) in storage and thought that the guitar string harmonics from all of these guitars, tuned in a variety of Just intervals, would make for nice material to use in this patch; appropriate sounds for my current state of being. So I recorded all of these harmonics, pitch by pitch, edited them all down to single sound files (all which took quite some time), and then fed them into the Max patch. Once I heard the results, I immediately knew that I had something special; something I liked a lot. This was the birth of Feel Free.

Over the next three months, I worked on a few incarnations for the piece: solo, group, and an early version of the sound installation, which I’d finish a bit later. The solo version came first, and is certainly more of a minimalist ambient/drone piece, or as some have said, “purer.” For the group version of Feel Free, which makes up the CD/LP, I wanted it to be more than just a “minimalist statement,” so I decided to mix in several of my influences over the past years into one single work. This was something I’d not done previously. I did this by taking the jazz and world music influences we’ve talked about and added in elements of New Music, all while preserving the ambient/drone core of the solo version. There were also some other influences that crept into the piece, though more subconsciously. There’s also one in particular that I’m happy did… though I won’t say what it is. The listener will have to try and figure it out. (Hint: it is a particular song by my favorite band)

A: As a musician, are you self-taught, or have you also received formal training?

DP: As a musician and composer, I’m self-taught.

A: And what prompted the move from NYC to New Orleans?

DP: I’d say it was mainly driven by the “regular guy” portion of myself. That dude wanted a better quality of life than NYC was offering. At the time of the move, I hadn’t lived in New Orleans for 16 years and I was feeling a certain “pull,” like the city was calling me, in a sense.

For the most part, I’m the “go with the flow” type. The artist portion of my being figured the move could be a way to force the rest of me into doing things differently by changing my surroundings and removing myself from a place full of types willing to perform my music for little-to-no money (as I make no money on my music). I’d have to find new solutions to create my work, which is something I wanted, and still do.

A: Much of an artist’s work these days is complicated by the financial side of things. Where do you rank the importance of finance in the order of your creative work?

DP: I’m not sure where I’d rank it in my process, but it certainly is a big factor in my production, of course. I self-fund everything, but if there’s a project I really want to happen – well – it is going to happen. Sure, I have more grandiose projects that seem unattainable and will never see the light of day, but the realist in me focuses on the attainable – the ones I can personally afford.

With my ensemble performances, I guess finance ranks quite high. But that said, it doesn’t mean the money is there. I’m just lucky to meet performers that are willing to take part in these projects, regardless of the lack of funds. For instance, I’m about to launch a Kickstarter campaign (with a rather small goal) to fund an ensemble performance of Feel Free that will take place in London on June 14th at Cafe OTO (which kicks off a small UK/EU tour). The performers agreed to do it prior to any mention of my raising these funds, which will be used to pay them a more proper amount (as well as rehearsal space, meals, instrument rental, etc). This will be the first time I’ll have asked for money for such a thing.

If I had funding, I could do this entire tour with an ensemble, fully representing the new record Feel Free. But that’s not the case, so I’ll do the rest solo… which will be less stressful, anyhow (ha).

For recording, when it’s done in a proper studio, I foot the bill. The same goes for computers and gear for recording at home and/or performances.

A: Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration between Important Records and Alien Workshop? How did that come about?

DP: Alien Workshop has always been stoked on my musical adventures over the past 15 years. I’ve always tried to keep them up to speed on what I’ve been doing throughout the years. John at Important Records used to skateboard and we’d had many skateboard conversations over the years. It seemed he dug the Workshop’s ethos and angle on skateboarding. One day, while we were emailing art back and forth, and he simply dropped the question: “What about decks?” (He was implying w/ AW). It felt right. I’ve been skating again (on some level) for the last couple of years, so I was okay with it. Though prior to now, I would not have been. All timing I suppose. So I contacted the Workshop and they were totally into the idea.

A: You said you’re still doing some skateboarding. Are you still doing much professionally?

DP: No, I “retired” from pro skating in 1997.

A: I remember, from my days skateboarding, how intimate the connection was between skateboarding and everything else I was doing in life at that time. Even though you’re not skateboarding as much as you used to, does it seem that skateboarding (or the ‘spiritual’ effect of it) influences your music-making and general creative endeavors?

DP: Like does my current skateboarding influence my current music-making/creativity? Or do you also mean my skating from the past, as well?

A: I mean both. (I always felt free when I skateboarded, like I didn’t care what was happening in the world. Just bombing hills and trying to land new tricks. No forms or regulations to follow. And I took that ethos into other things, like my writing and my various art projects. Even now, on a subconscious level, I think I still play to that.)

DP: The skateboarding of my past, and especially the early days of Alien Workshop, was very influential in what artistic path I’d end up taking in life. For several different reasons, it was a major force in shaping what was to come. Just being around the OG Alien Workshop aesthetic as a kid, I took it in DEEP, DEEP breaths. I loved it. Then there was the actual boarding itself. Later on, it definitely gave me the desire to do things as I saw fit. It’s why I eventually stopped playing in bands and focused on my own personal work, like a skateboarder would.

Now, my current skateboarding serves a different purpose. Firstly, I just get to do something again that I’ve loved for many years. And yes, the feeling of freedom while doing it is splendid. This is where the title of Feel Free comes from, essentially: skateboarding. By being fulfilled in this way – having that freedom; the motion of actually rolling around and doing tricks, like dance – this is inspiring and satisfying. It can certainly open up channels of creativity (some of which are unique to the actions that sparked them) for possible ideas, concepts, projects and such. Even the exercise aspect of skating aids in this; a balance between mind and body – all connected.

And you mention “on a subconscious level.” Surely I think that happens to many skateboarders that move on to other creative endeavors. Skateboarding, or the mentality that it creates within us, is still operating behind the scenes a large amount of the time. Once a skateboard always a skateboarder.

A: Are you working on any other projects right now?

DP: I’ve had a new, large-scale performance project brewing in my head lately. Its in its baby stages. If it pans out, it’ll be for a 2013 performance.

But what’s really on my mind lately is some “research and development” for different directions/tools to aid in the creation of new and fresh (to myself) solo material for live performance. This is something that’s currently missing in my life. Also – and maybe even more important to me right now – I’d like to get into some creative collaborations with others. I miss the personal and musical connections that come out of these. I’d like to get out of my own head for a while, to grow and learn.

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[Feel Free by Duane Pitre is now available on CD ($15) and LP($20) from Important Records. Limited-edition Alien Workshop/Feel Free skateboard decks are also available for mailorder from the IR website.]

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[Also, there are a few days left in Duane’s Kickstarter campaign for Feel Free in London. Help him meet his goal!]

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[Feature image from amillionkeys]

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