THE HISTORY OF ALIEN PLANETSCAPES
(as told to me by Doug Walker….)
Originally, Alien Planetscapes (AP) was intended to bring the concepts of free jazz improvistation to the Electronic Music (EM) of the Berlin school of EM, which I had been listening to since 1971, when I discovered Tangerine Dream (TD), Ash Ra Temple and others from Germany. Another influence was Baltimore based Tangent, who’d been playing TD influenced music in the US in 1977 (I got into them from their ads in Trouser Press). Also my association with Barney Jones (RIP) and Mars Everywhere was crucila in solidifying my interest in the SpaceRock form on the east coast. Forming the band was my reaction to my previous band (YETI), which played an intense form of Elctronic Free Jazz; there was a desire on my part to dispence with the drums and guitars, in favor of more elastic rhythms approaches from sequencers, and more reptition of said rhythmic materials!
1981 saw lots of experimentation with the tape recorder, acquisition of more and different types of equipment, and the intensive study of the process/philosophy of Electronic Music. Louis Boone (now in Born to Go) joined Alien Planetscapes in Janueary 1982, we had met via mutual friends who knew of our similar interests in music. Ironically, Louis had grown up in my neighborhood, even jamming with people I played with back then (late 60’s/early 70’s) but somehow we missed each other. 1982-83 was a very active period, AP was involved with the International Electronic Music Association, we played some of the their events during this time, and although we played live alot, NYC music business people gave us a bad attitude. At this time, John Zorn/Noise thing was hot here, but it was what I was doing in the late 70’s!! A memorable aborted gig at “In Roads”, we had our setup time cut to 20 minutes from 1.5 hours, it ended in a terrible shouting match with the Yuppie “Feminist” club manager, whose play rehearsal ran into our time! We did 7 great gigs at WFMU-FM (east Orange NJ), IEMA convention in Cleveleand OH, Providence, RI, and Elmer NJ. louis left in 11/83 to pursue other interests. I began living in a storefront in Brooklyn. The 1/84-1/86 period featured a lot of hardship, a robbery in which a great deal of stuff was stolen, relationship woes and three moves in two years. Yet, about 14 cassettes were done during this period, some solo, but many with David Prescott and Arnold Mathes (who I met through IEMA), and with guitarist John Likides.
Now, Carl Howard will fill you in about his time with Doug from 1986-1988
Alien Planetscapes in the Era of Reagan:
The fully-functioning, all-electronic, guerilla music model
Carl Howard looks back on the mysterious, two-person, nineteen-synthesizer version of New York City’s premier electronic music band
The answer is, really, it just kind of worked out that way.
The question is, how did two underground music activists from two different worlds but essentially the same side of the tracks find each other, and parlay that meeting into the formulation of the distinctive two-person version of Alien Planetscapes which so tantalized the music world, so turned it completely upon its head, that few people ever got the chance to see it play.
Okay, some explanation is in order. And some background. In the mid-1980s, the explosion of alternative music networking through things which used to be called Audio Cassettes, was at its peak. Doug Walker had already offered the world both duet and trio versions of AP with fellow-traveler performers such as Louis Boone (Born To Go; The Land of Guilt and Blarney; Friends of Mescalito) and David Prescott. Performances usually occurred in whatever Brooklyn apartment Doug happened to be living in at the time due to the inherent bulkiness of the musical equipment, as well as due to the extreme age of some of the analog synthesizers and mixers.
Douglass contacted me early in 1986 because he had seen my alternative and self-published music magazine ARTITUDE, and may have been aware that I had been running the audiofile Tapes label at that time as well. While Doug had been a cassette trader of live rock and jazz for years, he had also begun trading Alien Planetscapes tapes internationally with like-minded producers of low-budget, self-released music on cassette. It further helped matters that Al Margolis, whose Sound of Pig cassette label was already in high gear by 1986, lived locally as well. Doug began contacting people throughout this DIY (Do It Yourself) network ambitiously, often with delightful results.
Doug, further, wrote for ARTITUDE magazine, and his piece on Richard Pinhas and Heldon adorned the cover of its final issue later in 1986. This extensive write-up was subsequently updated, and was republished by Jerry Kranitz’ Aural Innovations magazine, but its first appearance in ARTITUDE marked perhaps the first piece on the work of Pinhas from a journalistic and historical perspective in the United States.
And what of the United States at that time? It was a climate in which not only the analog synthesizer, but also the Space Rock it made, had been thoroughly discredited from a commercial standpoint. Particularly in the large cities where the influence of the music labels held sway over clubs large and small, managers and promoters made clear they were not interested in floating electronic soundscapes, and were barely able to contain their unease with the thought of a bald black man playing synths, flute and guitar through a bewildering variety of electronic effect boxes.
On the plus side, since all out-of-production synthesizers immediately fell under the prejudicial category of “dinosaurs,” they were available at rock bottom prices which later analog revivalists would have kicked themselves over. For example, in 1987 I purchased an original Buchla modular synthesizer dating from about 1970 for $1500. I later sold it to an affable fellow who specialized in the restoration of such marvelous monsters for $9500.
These frustrations aside, Doug forged ahead with his music. At this time, his setup included a treasured ARP 2600 and an ARP 2800 Odyssey, a Vox Jaguar organ, and of course enough effects processors to give his setup the distinctive U-shape of a fortress. Some of my synthesizers began coming to his overheated, third story walkup Brooklyn apartment during this time for extended stays, including the ElectroComp EML-101, the Buchla modular in the heavy-as-fuck silver suitcase, and a variety of Korgs, ARPs, Rolands, and whatever else. In this way, Alien Planetscapes by 1987 consisted of two guys with a total of nineteen synthesizers between them, not to mention Doug’s guitar and flute. When it would get really hot up there, or during adverse weather conditions, the old synths would simply shut down and that was that.
During this period, Doug married his longtime love, Fran Tatz. They moved from Brooklyn to St. Albans, Queens, when Fran became pregnant with their son Evan. The house they purchased (I think the cost was about $108,000 – had the exact same house in exactly the same condition sat in a “white” neighborhood, it might have cost twice as much) was almost across the street from Doug’s parents. Doug painted the basement with several coats of black paint, and the ultimate Space Station Studio was born.
While there was no question in either Doug’s mind or mine that the music we made from that clunky collection of aging instruments was without parallel within the United States – especially as a kind of guerilla tribute to Tangerine Dream during the “Atem”/”Alpha Centauri” period – we never exactly felt we couldn’t do more. And that isn’t to say it was entirely easy to play or to record with that kind of setup. Ritually, between every fully improvised take (and we never, ever did overdubs), Doug would patch and repatch his ARP 2600 until it produced both tones and sequences which were to his liking. He would also take breaks to catch up on affairs of the day and on the rolling of … uhhh… the rolling of NOT-cigarettes. But that said, within the networking community of electronic musicians and space rockers as it existed at that time, our duet version of Alien Planetscapes consistently turned heads and gained respect. One time we played a vastly stripped down duet in an airplane hangar in the Brooklyn Navy Yards where the natural acoustics were stunning. We were playing through one completely shitty guitar amp which crapped out after about 15 minutes, but in that 15 minutes, Doug and I shock-trooped our way though a brief but entirely effective version of our improvised attack. The audience was treated to our uncompromised vision of electronic music as a performance instrument despite all the given limitations, and it responded with applause that resonated throughout the hangar.
I think Doug’s increasing dissatisfaction with being able to get his music to larger audiences eventually led to dissatisfaction with the way he was making it. Notably, this was the last time Alien Planetscapes ever existed as a duet, and it was the last time it was ever all-electronic. By early 1989, Doug had begun the process of auditioning for the rock band version of AP – a process which, agonizingly for him, never entirely stopped.
I miss those days, I miss Douglass, and I miss what in retrospect seems almost an innocence in what we were doing, even as the hurdles to performing and playing as we did were every bit vast then. When I came home from work one day in April, 2006 and was told that both Louis Boone AND Jerry Kranitz had tried to reach me, I knew immediately what it was: Douglass’ crappy heart had finally given out. In fact, when I got Louis on the phone in Doug’s house, I asked one question: “Is this what I think it is?” The answer was of course, yes.
Having relocated to Columbus, OH, I was unable to get back to Queens to participate in the official tribute, so I lost out on that too. In the days, and I do mean days, just before Doug’s passing, I had just spoken to him and caught up on a thing or two with him. On April 3rd, he put together a box of CD burns for me and brought it to the Post Office. I still have the box. I have never opened it (took a picture of it, though).
It creeps me out to think that one of Douglass’ final actions on this mortal coil, in George Bush’s fascist theocratic zombie AmeriKKKa, was to go to the Post Office to send me a box, after which he probably came home, went to bed, and died.
In a way I envy Fran and Doug their early exit visas from horrific, misbegotten shithole we once called the United States. Had they lived, they likely would have been indebted to creditors, including Big Pharma, for the rest of their lives, ultimately joining those aging Baby Boomers who now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between purchasing prescriptions and putting food on the table. For those of us who remain, let’s remember Doug and Fran, and let’s remember how they supported each other and what they selflessly gave the world. And for those of us who shared some of that time with them, let’s celebrate their uniqueness while we hope that their combined spark did not leave this world with them.
Summer 1990- Spring 1992
To the best of my recollection 15(!) years later, I was in Alien Planetscapes from the late Summer 90 through Spring 92. Every Saturday afternoon, failing very few, we convened at the Space Station Studio in Doug’s basement. We were always welcomed by Fran and Evan with coffee, before they had to run out of the house when we started playing. With RB at the controls, we would ‘make shit up’, as LG coined. Never once a discussion of what we were going to play, only once did I jokingly “ask what key are we in?” “Whatever key you think” was Doug’s helpful reply.
Musically, in 1990, I was in the doldrums, after the ‘anything goes’ days of college bands, I ended up on Long Island, in a project destined to be a “Big Chill” party band. Being anything but a classic rock guitarist, I went home depressed and looked in the music paper and answered Dougs ad that afternoon. I wish I remember the wording, but it looked too good to pass up. I called right then and within hours we were playing. The minute I entered the Space Station, I knew this was the band for me. Doug’s keyboard well, the black cinderblock walls, the piles of vintage gear everywhere. I was told I was the 12th guitar player they had auditioned, the others, scared off, refused to come back, I couldn’t wait. Before we played, Doug told me his musical (and otherwise) philosophy; there would be homework for this band he said. I guess I held my own, he never gave me that homework and invited me back to jam the the next day, inviting me to leave my gear. We jumped right into it as the band, already consisting of Doug, Louis Boone, LG Mair, Len Pace, and John Cordes, was ready to go.
Playing with the band was always both exhilerating and exhausting. Most songs lasted at least 23 minutes and were nonstop at full bore, with LG Mair leading the band through fully realized compositions that just flowed out in timings of 5, 6, 7, 9, or 11 at breakneck speed. Len Pace had a way of picking up the timing and phrasing before LG got through the riff once. The occasional hoedown, led by John Cordes’ fiddle would pop out, or spacy interludes between hard driving grooves. I tried to bridge the gap between the rhythm section and the reedy sound of Cordes delay drenched wah-violin, Doug’s much joked about ‘quacker’ (Casio midi woodwind controller) and synths, and Louis’ percussion or synths or tape loops or whatever found sounds he had that week. I played electric, slide, and midi guitar. While there were plenty of sonic trainwrecks, (one that even had LG on the floor due to destructive interfernce of sound waves),at some point in most every piece, something magical would emerge, sometimes for seconds on end, and the band would really have something to say.
Playing with Alien Planetscapes completely opened my ears and mind (and destroyed portions of my hearing). Some of the material from this period of the band sounds almost structured, we only had about 4 or 5 motifs that were reoccuring, there were no setlists or arrangements.
Invariably, any time we decided what to open with at a gig, LG would start with something else. A valuable lesson against any sort of preconceptions that I only had to learn once. My favorite passages were the transitions between the grooves when the whole band was composing in real time. There was a real intensity and energy, you had to be ahead of the beat or you were left behind. Musically, the idea Doug instilled was to not play anything you had played before and not play the same thing twice. This meant freeing yourself from your musical influences and even forgoing technique at times and adding what the music dictatated and losing the ego. The music is the sum of the parts, each player adding an element to what is percieved as the overall unified theme. It has taken years for the pieces to reveal their true form, having separated myself from my little piece of it and putting it in perspective.
The record deal with Anarchy Records was a short-lived flirtation with success, until we saw that there was little they were going to do for us. The band incorporated and got its act together a little and went into the studio in August 1991 to record the Closer Than You Think sessions. It was recorded one night and mixed the next. Doug was not happy with the first mix and we went back a week later and remixed it. Dougs idea for the art work was a car sideview mirror with the words Closer than you Think (a play on objects in mirror….) and a galaxy reflected in the mirror. The sessions were good, but a little uninspired, I think our rehearsal from July was much more energetic.
A few gig memories come to mind, like driving to Boston from Queens for a Summer Solstice gig on WBZC, Boston College Radio for the ‘No Commercial Potential’ show broadcast around 3 am. We drove 5 hours straight to the gig, played, and drove straight home by the next morning, feeding our driver/drummer Lenny chocolate covered expresso beans the whole drive… ‘yeah, they are peanuts….have some more”. No wonder the tempos were exceedingly fast that night. Or the Rainbow Benefit when the whole crowd was sitting on the floor chanting “ommmmmm” and RB comes cutting through carrying some equipment saying “hate to be an ommmm wrecker….”. Or the halloween costume gig at the Wetlands when we left the whole audience writhing on the floor by the end of our set. We watched them go from standing to kneeling to writhing, was it agony or exstasy?
Eventually, LG had to quit to do his paying gig, Len Pace split too, and I, having moved to NJ, could not keep driving every weekend to audition reluctant musicians to replace them, so this incarnation of the band dissolved after February 1992. I did play with Doug and the band a few times through the 90’s. I’ll always remember how Fran and Doug welcomed me back whenever we convened to play after my sinti with them. I played with LG and Lenny in a short lived band called Sweet Baby Clams and then with Lenny in Terra Incognita for a couple of years in upstate NY. My current band, Gel, is a kind of psychedelic blues band that plays originals and covers in Westchester NY.