Experimental Groundbreakers Controlled Bleeding Straddle the Primal and Cerebral
Controlled Bleeding bandleader and guitarist Paul Lemos isn’t the type of artist you can pigeonhole. Since founding Controlled Bleeding in Boston in the late ‘70s, Lemos has led the band through a dizzying array of musical styles including post-punk, fusion, power electronics, and industrial, to name just a few. Not unlike King Crimson or Swans—acts whose names function as institutions that host revolving casts of players—Controlled Bleeding can appear to be an entirely different band depending on which album or period you focus on.
Last year, after a lengthy hiatus following the deaths of longtime creative partners, drummer/keyboardist Chris Moriarty and singer/keyboardist Joe Papa, Lemos released his first album in 14 years under the Controlled Bleeding banner, Larva Lumps and Baby Bumps. Anchored by the talents of new collaborators Chad Bernhard and Mike Bazini, both drum programmers, sound sculptors, and keyboardists, the album was the result of a gradual (but initially unintended) five-year build towards reactivating the band.
In a career defined by exploration, Lemos and company are still pushing themselves to discover new sounds. On their appropriately-titled new remix album Carving Songs, 15 like-minded artists including Merzbow, Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and Jesu, and Child Bite reimagine Larva Lumps for a varied but surprisingly cohesive take on an already-eclectic album. Of course, it wouldn’t be Controlled Bleeding if the project didn’t also put fresh twists on the idea of the definition of the remix itself. Lemos spoke to us from his home on his native Long Island, his base for over 35 years.
Why a remix album—and why now, so late into the band’s career?
When Joe and Chris were alive, we’d kind of intended with the Soleilmoon label to do something with [our 1997 album The] Poisoner, but we just never did it. Working with two new people, I was able to create the remix project that I would’ve always wanted to make but never had the technical ability to do myself. I’m not an expert in digital recording, but Chad and Mike, the guys I work with now, are. They’re really very technical. Going into it, I had a concept where it would be more reconfiguration of the pieces, not just simple remixing. The idea was to make a whole new record from the stems of what we had. It just seemed right going forward as part of a new era of the group.
Chris and Joe passed away a couple of years apart from one another. You didn’t do music for a long time—
—until reconnecting with early Controlled Bleeding drummer Tony Meola.
When Chris passed away, he had moved from Long Island to Phoenix and we hadn’t played together in a long time. So in terms of that collaboration, I didn’t really miss that. In some ways, it was liberating. It allowed me to really explore things with Joe in a much deeper way. Joe and I became very, very close—best friends. We were exploring a lot of different stuff. We were doing a project named the Breast Fed Yak, kind of an exploration into our free jazz interests, inspired by stuff we were listening to like the Gods. We were just having a good time. It wasn’t even meant to be an album until David Katznelson from Birdman Records heard it and wanted to put it out.
But we were also doing deep spiritual music. We were very prolific for a certain period of time, and we had a real musical symmetry that’s hard to find with anyone else. And Joe was such a singular talent—as a vocalist, as a percussionist, etc. He had a great feel for keyboards and a fine sense of melody. So when he died, I really lost interest. I’m not tech-savvy, so I wasn’t even bothering being on the Internet, and the band had no online presence.
My buddy Rich Black set up a website for the band—I think it was on Myspace—and suddenly there were people who were really interested and reaching out to me all excited. Rich is one of those people who never really receives credit where credit is due. He had done a free paper on Long Island for many years, Under the Volcano. He gave me the inspiration to get back in the game by letting me know that there were actually people who gave a fuck what I’d done, and that the band wasn’t dead. I’d pretty much forgotten it. I’d even forgotten myself as a musician. For years, I’d [solely] considered myself a schoolteacher. [Lemos has been a teacher for 36 years—ed.]
How much would you say you were grieving?
Oh, I still grieve. I think about Joey every day. We were both record fanatics and would always be in the city shopping for records. It’s strange, when certain things come out that we would’ve waited for, I always think about him. He’s always in my mind. At the time, when he passed away, I don’t know if I really understood the depth of the loss, but over the years it’s been tough because he was kind of a brother to me. That was a powerful loss.
You’ve used the word ‘reconfiguration’—Carving Songs certainly works as a companion to Larva Lumps and Baby Bumps, but in a different way than one might expect when they hear the word ‘remix.’
Yeah, I don’t like remix records in general. I find that a lot of them are toss-offs, interim projects to keep momentum going for a band while they’re trying to work on a full-length. So I wanted to do this as a companion to Larva Lumps, as a piece of new music on its own. That’s why we integrated the new piece, ‘Trod,’ and some of our own remixes.
You had pre-existing working relationships with several of the people who contributed remixes, but how did you go about selecting and contacting everyone?
You know, this was probably one of the hardest undertakings I’ve ever been challenged with. I had no idea that doing a record of this nature would have been such an incredible amount of work for me—just kind of keeping everybody on task, making the contacts, making sure that everybody was going to come through, and making sure that the remixes were going to be stuff that we liked. It was kind of a delicate process getting the mixes exactly as we wanted them. But really, it started pretty much from a set of e-mails to people that I’d been corresponding with, some over a long time, like Justin Broadrick and Masami Akita [aka Merzbow], and other, more recent acquaintances like Child Bite, Child Abuse, and Ron Anderson. But it was just people whose music I liked, and people who I thought would have the vision to approach our music from an interesting perspective.
When you say ‘working with them to get the mixes to where we wanted them,’ how much back and forth was there? How much guidance did you give?
That’s the really tricky part. I personally would find this very difficult, reinterpreting somebody else’s work. I don’t know how I’d approach it. In this case, sometimes I’d be working with an artist—a friend—and a mix would appear and I’d say, ‘If you could just maybe push this part of it’ or ‘This section needs a little bit more textural work.’ At times, I’d be trying to give some positive criticism to certain artists. Because they were friends and we’ve had dialogue, nobody just told me to go fuck myself [laughs], which is probably what I would have said to somebody if I were in their position. But I’m pleased to say that everybody involved was patient with me. Because sometimes I’d listen to their remixes and I’d have a vision of what their mix could be, but it might’ve been different than what the artist had in mind.
Good to hear you didn’t lose any friendships over it!
Well, like I said, sometimes it can be very delicate.
I think that would be the case even between people within the same band. And that’s another thing that separates Carving Songs from your typical ‘remix’ album, because it’s more collaborative.
It was very much a collaboration. I interacted with a lot of the artists, and things were tweaked and rearranged a bit. Like with Renaldo & The Loaf, I requested that they add a vocal part, just because I’ve always loved the vocals they do, but they hadn’t intended to put a vocal part in.
So you genuinely produced these remixers.
Well, maybe just kind of urged them in certain directions at times. Like Ron Anderson—he’s an incredible, incredible guitar player. Terribly underrated. Everybody knows guys like John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, and all of the downtown New York guys. But Ron, he’s been plugging away in New York, composing and doing just unbelievably creative music, and he hasn’t really gotten props for it. He did a remake of ‘Carving Song,’ and the guitar solos were unbelievable but they went on for a very, very long time. So we talked and I told him that I thought editing it down would make sense. As a guitarist myself, I know that I wouldn’t want my solos fucked with. But he was really obliging, and I think the song came together all the better for it. I think a lot of these people were excited to do it because they probably figured we’d take an interesting approach since we’ve never embarked on a remix project before.
How does receiving a remix from someone like Justin Broadrick or Merzbow give you a new understanding of something you made?
It always fascinates me the way somebody would approach a piece of music that I’m just so completely familiar with. Like how Justin approached a piece like ‘Swarm’—this little two-minute, wound-up noise piece that I would do with my drummer and a looper. I mean, it’s a drum loop, myself on guitar, a drummer, and maybe some slight electronic enhancement. Justin expanding it to six minutes with that unbelievable, doom-y dread—he’s the master of creating that kind of heavy menace—was inspiring to me because it gave me new ideas for approaching my own music. Some of the results gave me ideas that I might explore on the next record we’re working on now. But beyond that, I’m not sure how to answer.
You’re clearly a musical omnivore—you were equally influenced by the Ramones and the Stooges as you were by Mahavishnu Orchestra, Henry Cow, etc. Where did that listening approach land you socially growing up? Because it’s so common for people to use music as their avenue to determine who their social group is. Johnny Ramone would probably have been horrified by Mahavishnu, and maybe vice-versa.
But someone like you doesn’t see any contradiction there.
Well, I separate the music. There’s music that gratifies me on a purely primal, physical level, and then there’s music that gratifies me on a much more cerebral level. But I understand what you’re saying—most straight-edge kids aren’t going to be listening to Magma, for example, because that would be very alienating to them. I remember in sixth grade, the record I wanted for Christmas was the Stooges’ Fun House. Somehow, my aunt found a copy of it. This was probably 1970, when the record was released. I just wanted this record, having read about the Stooges in Circus magazine and seen these pictures. So I brought it to show-and-tell, maybe with the first Doors album and a couple of others.
I was always fascinated by music. I had some older friends in Boston, because that was my summer home. They were introducing me to music that I couldn’t really comprehend, like the Velvet Underground was beyond me. Hearing White Light/White Heat for the first time, I didn’t get it until years later. But throughout my early years, I was always looking for the most extreme physical music I could find. That strain always continued. Today, bands like Portal and that ilk still really excite me. But for some reason—I don’t know where the other part of it came in—my interest in prog also developed. I guess when I started exploring guitar, that might’ve been the very beginnings. Hearing people like Robert Fripp led me into that.
We’re talking about the primal and cerebral as two separate sides of human expression, but there’s quite a bit of music that combines those two things. How much would you say that Controlled Bleeding ever hit a middle ground?
I think we maybe hit a middle ground on the records we put out on Wax Trax! and Roadrunner. I always thought that we became followers during that period, playing the fame game and getting excited by the commercial notoriety that we were receiving. I think those records suffered creatively, but they were kind of in the middle ground. It was just a fluke getting on Wax Trax! There were some strange experiments that I was doing that had a rhythmic flow. A cassette of these things that were never really intended to go to a label ended up in [Wax Trax! founder] Jim Nash’s hands. One day I get a call from him and he’s interested in doing an EP with the group. At that point, we said, “This is our shot at mainstream exposure.” Suddenly, our values had become adjusted a little bit [laughs]. Or re-adjusted. But it was never about money. It was about just about “playing that game,” you know?
Early on, when I was playing CBGB supporting Brian Setzer’s band the Bloodless Pharaohs, and we were on bills with bands like Suicide playing this really, really fast, aggressive instrumental music, before [Controlled Bleeding’s 1985’s debut album] Knees & Bones and our whole noise phase developed—I think the intent was to make something that was going to maybe be part of the commercial, semi-progressive mainstream in some weird way. And then those desires all vanished for me. They kind of returned when we had this opportunity with Wax Trax! But it was never about the money.
How disappointed were you when that didn’t pan out?
Once Wax Trax! folded, we hopped onto Roadrunner and we were making magazine covers and selling what at the time was considered a lot of records. When Roadrunner just kind of took the rug out from under us, I was disappointed on one hand, but almost relieved, because I was able to go back to thinking about why I began doing music initially and what it gave me. I didn’t want to look for a major label or even get established with a big independent label. I just kinda wanted to retreat and re-evaluate what I was doing and why. So it put me back on course. When we were working with Wax Trax! and Roadrunner, the next logical step would have been to pursue a major label. I really wanted to work with Sire records at a certain point. They seemed to have been doing creative, interesting things. But that all vanished. And deep down, I wasn’t really satisfied with what we were doing musically then.
To oversimplify a bit, when Controlled Bleeding starts in the Boston area in the late ‘70s, you’re doing this kind of Mahavishnu Orchestra-inspired fusion, but with a post-punk spirit. Eventually, that leads to records like Knees & Bones, which you yourself have described as ‘unlistenable’ exercises in power electronics—
When I say ‘unlistenable,’ I mean unlistenable for people at the time. I always enjoyed the sound of what we were doing. But a lot of people just did find it completely unlistenable. Like when my dad heard it, he just fucking couldn’t understand it at all. And he was always somewhat of a fan of the music that I’d been doing previously. It’s funny, because it was completely rejected by everybody I knew, and I guess that told me that I was on the right course. I’ve always been attracted to those things, where there’s a hybrid of what might be considered classically, you know, hideous but there’s a certain beauty inherent in it.
Like when you look at the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin, or you see a movie like Eraserhead, which had a profound impact on me when I was young in the ‘70s. I saw that in an empty theater, and I went to see it about four nights in a row in the dead of winter. I was living in a house by myself, freezing my ass off [laughs] and penniless and going to see Eraserhead. That absolute, utter bleakness! It was a horror vision, but it was such a beautiful vision in some way too.
Musically, for me, that’s always the exciting point, when there’s that vicious brutality within it, but a powerful emotional thread, and maybe some other sense of beauty to it as well. I just like those collisions.
Review originally published HERE: