Conversations with Bryan Valenzuela of Exquisite Corps
Written by Julia Marino
Bryan Valenzuela leveled his eyes along the white concrete lines of Beatnik’s brick wall, ensuring an even, steady balance for the last canvas that would complete one of his recent works “Night Mare.” It is late April, and I’m looking at his mixed-media painting coated with constellations. The piece depicts a horse with six legs, or a Muybridge stallion in mid-gallop, depending on how you look at it. Within the belly of the mare were words sketched in black ink, poetry conveying both realism and imagination – an invincible combination found not only within Valenzuela‘s visual art, but also his musical creations.
Founder, singer and guitarist for Sacramento’s chamber rock ensemble Exquisite Corps, Valenzuela was filmed for one of Live in the City of Trees’ first ever music videos, which captured his band hauling strings and drums up several narrow flights of stairs to the top of the haunted Maydestone building downtown. Once assembled and tuned, you hear the strings begin a climbing crescendo as Valenzuela wistfully croons, “…the weight of the world disappears…” lyrics to the song “Light as a Feather.”
Exquisite Corps, a pun on the collaboration game “Exquisite Corpse,” was formed by Valenzuela and cellist Krystyna Taylor about one year ago. A music theory addict, Valenzuela composed string parts for a show performed by his former band Call Me Ishmael, which invited Taylor on stage as part of an accompanying string trio. Their “energies mixed well,” said Valenzuela, energy that sparked a desire for future collaboration. But years went by, and the two were not reunited until, by fate or by happenstance, they met again at the Press Club to the intense tune of string metal band Judgment Day. Since then, Exquisite Corps has launched into the practice and pursuit of new compositions, an album and many live performances.
One such show included a Beatnik event, auspiciously timed on Taylor’s birthday and the one-year anniversary of the group’s first performance, and featured Valenzuela’s “Night Mare” and other works, photography, fire dancing and additional music by Ellie Fortune and Lasher Keen. Concerts for Charity also helped the band raise funds to help kick start their album, which will be recorded at the Hanger and produced by Scott McShane, producer of Sister Crayon’s 2010 release Bellow.
Hours before the event would take place, and after “Night Mare” was carefully displayed and studied, Valenzuela and I conversed in the Beatnik foyer about the magical nature of music, the upcoming record, his favorite tree and more.
Julia: What is “Light as a Feather,” the song Exquisite Corps performs in your video, all about?
Bryan: The title has to do with one of the lyrics in the song. “Light as a feather, and the weight of the world disappears…” The song is reminiscent of how your thoughts, emotions, weigh you down. You know what I think about a lot of my songs – I think of them as personal spells in a way. That sounds kind of weird. But, I’m not a witch or anything. (Laughs) But, they’re like personal incantations to sort of … live a better life, you know? I want to live the best life possible. I want to sing about trying to reach that.
Julia: It’s so interesting how creating music or any art can start with this idea that you write it down, and then once you collaborate it will take on a life of its own.
Bryan: Yeah, it really does because say I record something on my own and record drums to it, but when you actually play that something with a drummer it becomes a whole other scenario. It has a whole other power to it. It can kind of really come alive if you get the right people. We’ve gone through some lineup changes throughout the year, and we’ve started to get solid with the people we’re playing with now… I play violin, but not nearly as well as they play violin. There are tricks on the violin that they’re telling me about. That’s where the collaboration comes in. ‘Here are the notes you want me to play, but I can do it like this, and it sounds like this.’ I learn a lot by listening to them and it helps me write for their instrument…They’ve figured out so many ways to do things. It’s endless.
Julia: What’s the process of putting together your first album?
Bryan: It’s an involved process because recording strings is not easy, and just getting it all in tune and timed right and all that kind of stuff with the strings can be daunting – having all the parts prepared, doing all the preparations and rehearsals. Rehearsing for a recording is a little different, just real different animal than just playing live. There’s such an ‘in the moment thing.’ Recording, you can shape that moment… and then it’s there forever. It just doesn’t fly away, like a Lead Belly song.
Music has always been live. It had never been recorded until around 100 years ago. It had never been recorded, and now it’s like trapped.
Julia: Right. It’s a different experience. Yeah, when it’s recorded, you know everyone has heard the same version of that song. But when you see someone live, you’re re-experiencing the music.
Bryan: And it can either really blow you away with what the song can become as a living, breathing animal or what the song can sort of lack. We always try to go with the former. (Laughs)
Julia: What kind of technique do you have for recording?
Bryan: We are probably going to record a lot of rhythm and strings together live. But there will be exceptions to all those rules. We’ll start layering. It’s cool because recording is very similar to painting. You start layering things. There are things that really start happening in the moment, and there are things that get layered on top of that. They’re analogous worlds.
Julia: What draws you to visual art and what draws you to music? And how do they differ as outlets?
Bryan: I think they fuel each other more than being different outlets. So maybe you are starting to feel a little stuck on one side, then you can use the other side to sort of reignite the other. They feed off of each other.
Julia: So you often shift concepts from one media to the other?
Bryan: It’s kind of cool because music can be very visual, and also art can be kind of rhythmic. It’s kind of cool to be able to be able to bounce back and forth and use the same ideas in two different ways. I wouldn’t say all art is experimentation. But a lot of it is experimenting and trial and error and seeing how that works and how this juxtaposes to that. One core idea can really spark a lot of ideas musically because music is really hard to explain. It’s in the ether. You got to sort of grab it.
Julia: Words can’t describe everything that you want to express.
Bryan: I always think of music as another language. So it’s trying to translate say Japanese into English. You can get someone to translate it, but you can’t get all the same inflections.
Julia: I find that to be a challenge when just writing about music. I do my best to describe it, and do it justice, but sometimes music supersedes language on that you just can’t put it to words. Describe the writing process for you personally. What is it like for you?
Bryan: Yeah, I agree. A method of songwriting for me is to write the music first, because a lot of time the music will come to me a lot faster than the words that I need to tell that story. And it can be hard sometimes, hard to kind of uncover what I’m trying to say. With songwriting it can be a lot easier in the sense that it can be poetry and bring forth flashes of images and flashes of emotions, instead of trying to tell someone exactly what’s going on.
Julia: Would you consider art and music a form of catharsis?
Bryan: You know, it used to be a form of catharsis for me, and in some ways performance still is. But there’s only so much you can grab from your everyday life, and I kind of like imaginative writing — coming up with scenarios and sort of fantastical things.
Julia: How would you describe the music community in Sacramento?
Bryan: There’s more of it happening all the time – more and more people wanting to be part of the art community. The weird thing about Sacramento is that it has its dips and highs and lows and stuff like that… but I think we’re in a high point right now, and I’ve recognized that people are being more supportive of each other…Whether supporting people in this town or appreciating the art itself, I just think there’s more and more of that happening, more people in Midtown or if not, the other areas.
Julia: It’s an unexpected little gem.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s not something you’d expect, but man, there are a lot of amazing people here. And it’s cool that lately a lot of those people are getting out of Sacramento and touring, like Sister Crayon – they’re doing really well and representing Sacramento in a positive way.
Julia: Do you have plans to tour soon?
Bryan: I’ve been on tour before and tours are some of the coolest times – just going on the road and meeting new people. It’s like that Willie Nelson song!
Julia: Yes! There are many musicians who have written about the experience of touring and traveling. Where have you gone and where do you plan to go?
Bryan: In other bands, I’ve gone all over the country. [Exquisite Corp] is planning on some small west coast tours.
Julia: Ok, so finally, I must ask you. As we live in the City of Trees, what is your favorite tree?
Bryan: Along the coast you see these Cyprus trees. I just love the way they move, in that wind-swept way.