Category Archives: Live in the City of Trees
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.
Be Bold Brave Robot
I’m riding in the passenger seat as we soar down 19th street. Catie Turner, viola player for Be Bold Brave Robot and determined road warrior, is in the driver’s seat. We’re running a few minutes late for a gig at Sacramento City College where Turner and Dean Haakenson will perform live for a show hosted by the college’s Independent Record Label class, a show that serves as hands on practice for students learning the ins and outs of the music business.
Haakenson, the creator and songwriter of Be Bold Brave Robot, sits in the backseat seat, and explains the origins of the band’s beautifully alliterate name: Be Bold Brave Robot.
“It came graffiti that I heard existed somewhere up north in Humboldt,” he says.
This was several years ago, and Haakenson barrowed the phrase for his zine, a rag he wrote, photo copied and distributed in his spare time. Like a tag, the name took, and he transferred the title to his band name, a catchy expression that when made into acronym – BBBR, is reminiscent of a man stuttering for an order of Pabst. Hipsters, hippies and even hip hop lovers; they all drink it up.
Though the zine has since retired, the band has solidly been performing for six years, with Haakenson having performed with a variety of artists and friends at different points throughout the band’s lifespan. Though bassist Matty Gerken has been with the band for many years, Turner is a newer addition. She says she met Haakenson on the patio during a show. Upon learning that she played viola, Haakenson immediately asked her to record with them.
The car turns sharply across from Curtis Park, and we finally reach our destination. A series of failed parking attempts, stirs wishes of biking, guitar strapped, to the venue, which is a common practice for Dean, an avid bike rider. We finally find a spot, and walk into the classroom calmly, and actually on time.
“Who rode their bikes today? It’s bike month!” Haakenson asks the crowd as he tunes his guitar. No one answers. “You guys should get some bicycles,” he adds. “You can keep it in the house. Ride it around every once in a while. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun… Can I get an A minor?”
The room then grows silent as Haakenson introduces the first song.
“This song is sung in the first person from the point of view of an older sister talking to and about her younger sister…”
Turner plucks the viola’s strings playfully, a staccato dance skipping across the air. Haakenson’s voice speeds up and slows down, the violin add a crashing crescendo before the chorus. In the voice of the Frenchmen, Haakenson sings to the little sister. The audience’s laugh interrupts his flow and he starts again, sounding more French than ever. The dynamics shift again and he starts humming as the viola trills triumphantly. The classroom applauds and, rather unexpectedly, Haakenson begins to rap a fashion friendly beat about shopping at Target.
Although such a rap juxtaposes Haakenson’s otherwise folk-influenced songs, they couldn’t be more fitting as they prepare for performances in between hip hop artists such as Crazy Ballhead and Crooked Face.
“In the back in my mind, I’ve had this idea that I’d like to be a rapper. I’ve liked to rap since I was in the 8th grade,” he says.
The last song of the show is the more emotional, “Take a Deep Breath,” also the title of Be Brave Bold Robot’s 2010 release, a compilation that serves up warm and cool, emotional and witty all in one balanced bundle.
Haakenson and Turner give their thanks and the show raps up to the excited release of information, laughter, and even a Live in the City of Trees shout out! Be Brave Robot was the first group to be filmed for Live in the City of Trees, a production that presented their harmonies and quirks on the 3rd floor warehouse building on the corner of 2nd St. They played the song “Gridlocked,” a performance that unleashed sweeping strings, sign language and haunting echo off the bricks.
The show ends and we’re back on the road. Somewhere gliding through the elm tree lined grid of Midtown, the three of us get to talking about the meaning of “Gridlocked, the importance of being silly and more.
Julia: So tell me a little bit about that song – Gridlocked. So what inspired the song?
Dean: It was “Going to the city…coming back again and kind of wishing that you hadn’t maybe. You know, gridlocked…. you know there’s a grid. It’s three miles by three miles. You know, it’s a little play on some Sacramento things. And specifically it stemmed from a going on an a little trip up 50 to these cabins up 50 nearing Tahoe. And it’s a family cabin. And we had done a little bit of mushrooms. It embraced…. that sensational feeling about being out in nature, on mushrooms and thinking, I never want this to go away because of how magical it is. And so this song is formulated from that thought of how here we are stuck in this place where we have all these obligations and things, and we don’t go back as often as possible. I more and more want to embrace going camping as often as possible and getting out and seeing nature.
Julia: So “Gridlocked” is about having cabin fever in a way, but instead of being in the cabin you’re in the grid?
Julia: What’s the song writing process like for your, both individually and then when you get together with the rest of the band?
Dean: So far, I’ve completed the songs before I bring them to the band. So in that process, it’s just as slowly or as quickly as it comes. Sometimes, it’s just like one line a day, or like half a song in a day. And I’ll be alone, and I’ll be thinking about it. I know I’m on the right track when I’m at work and still thinking about the lyrics and have to run back home and write more lyrics. It’s like an all-encompassing process where getting back to that solitary room with a guitar is always beckoning. It’s thinking about what lyrics could come next to that story, trying to hold on to that theme and not lose it so that the consistency and continuity doesn’t escape.
Julia: So you keep a notepad with you just in case?
Dean: Yeah, usually I have dedicated pages for songs — blank space I know will be for the next verse. I like to write the songs on the guitar and the lyrics all at the same time, in a linear fashion.
Julia: Yeah I think I can tell because yours lyrics and the instrumentation just flow… like they’re growing out of each other. And you’re very prolific.
Dean: Yeah? That’s nice to hear because I’ve felt like I’ve felt a little bit of writer’s block I guess. It comes in waves. But it’s nice to have built up enough songs over the years to where there are enough songs for a band to play different songs at different times. There was a time when I first started playing, when I really only had like 15 good songs.
Julia: How many songs do you think I have total?
Dean: I have about 30 songs now.
Julia: With Be Bold Brave Robot or in total?
Dean: They pretty much know every song I’ve ever done. I’ve had four different drummers in like say, the last six years, and I’ve had four different bassists. And I have a few different friends that have been my friends for years now, and they still sit in and play with me every once in a while. It feels good to have met all these people over the years and maintain these friendships. I always find someone who can come in and play at the last minute for a show and maybe play electric even. You know, if those songs today had electric guitar, there’d be a different sound to it.
Catie: Yeah, or like the banjo or keyboard. I like how the sound is always changing.
Dean: I like that a lot. For me it makes me feel just that right amount of something different happening so it feels fresh, even though maybe I’ve played this song several other times in the past.
Julia: What’s the process like when you’ve written a song, and you’re ready to share it with the band?
Dean: Usually I’ll send a recording. In recent history, I’ve known that I needed to show the song to the band members, so I’ll record it very much for the purpose of knowing that they’ll have something to practice along to, which I know Catie has taken advantage of so she can practice her parts.
Catie: Sometimes, it depends on how I first hear the song. If it’s at a band practice, then we’ll start improvising. Matty comes up with a lot of good idea, or Dean will have an idea. So when it’s at a practice, it’s more collaborative. Sometimes Dean will just send me at mp3, and I’ll just play along with it and write out notes and formulate a part that way.
Julia: Do you ever do any improv on stage?
Dean: Yeah, you know one thing I’ve done is in between a song, I’ll be tuning my guitar and Matty the bassist – he’s really talented – he’ll come and start doing a bass line. And then the drummer might do a hip-hop beat, and then I’ll just stop tuning the guitar, and try to do a little improv rapping.
Julia: So I want to ask everyone who is part of this site. What is your favorite tree here in Sacramento?
Dean: I love all the large elms that stretch on D and E Street, and then there’s the mighty Oak –the larger and older the better.
Catie: I’m going to have to say my grandmother’s grapefruit trees. I just love living in a city with a lot of trees. I think about it every day driving, especially now in the spring with the hummingbirds. It’s amazing. It makes me happy.
Julia: Speaking of that, I read how one writer compared your music to the sound of hummingbirds…
Dean: Yeah, he wrote that watching Be Bold Brave Robot is akin to watching a bunch of drunk hummingbirds. I like that. Too often you see bands that have their look down. They have their look down and are afraid to be silly. And I think life should be a little more silly and playful. I’d like to embody that. Because I think carrying too much about how you look can stunt expression and like improvisation, being completely in the moment, which I think people enjoy. The more you allow yourself to not be censoring how silly you are moment to moment, the more you’re going to live moment to moment.