Rhyton, “Topkapi”

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Rhyton is a project lead by David Shuford, who has played in bands such as the noise/improvisation-based, NNCK, and the more accessible rock outfit, D Charles Speer and the Helix. Too add to the diversity of Shuford’s body of work Rhyton is nothing like either of the aforementioned bands.

Rhtyon’s upcoming album, Kykeon (which means ‘to stir’ or ‘to mix’), is a full-bodied fusion of ancient Mediterranean and Middle-eastern scales and melodies with contemporary jam band and psychedelic rock elements. It’s of the future and of the past, but more than anything there is a rare unconscious intuition between the trio, whose music is primarily born of improvisation. Having mostly explored one-track improvised takes in their recordings, Kykeon explores a slightly more constructed version of Rhyton, where structure takes a stronger role while retaining a natural intuition.

Listen to the song “Topkapi” below, and read on for a Q&A with Shuford.

Your projects have all differed in sound, how did this particular fusion of middle-eastern harmonies and scales with contemporary styles come about?

Well early on in our existence we began with a lot of single chord jams, working in a droney melodic improv manner. Middle Eastern musics are usually modal and highly melodic and rhythmic, generally not involved with the harmonies of traditional western music. As such, utilizing modes I learned from some study of Greek and Turkish musics allowed for an expanded palette and different resonances, beyond the realm of a rock/blues based soloing approach. We maintain many of the trappings of straight rock (amplified tones, dynamics, effects) but the using a broader swath of melodic pathways allow for variegated tension and release, beyond typical harmonic forms.

Diverse stringed instruments also allow for different voicings and tonal aggregations. For this last record we have been exploring more interpolation of chord structures, certain chords that can be used to back particular scales, as another way of mixing forms and traditions to try to find a more personal lexicon for our music making. Moving forward I hope that we can also incorporate more unusual (but common in the Mediterranean and Near East) time signatures, such as working in 9 and 7, and specifically accented 4/4 and 2/4 beats also like the tsifteteli.

How has the process of recording with improvised one-takes compared to the more produced process of the new album?

The headspace necessary for creating engaging improvisations is not something that is easily accessed. It takes many hours spent listening and playing together, a shared aesthetic frame, suitable personalities. Other players may prefer “first meeting” type approaches, but I think musical connection is always stronger and bettered when forged over shared time.

The Kykeon session combined segments of improvisation with conventional takes of the composed pieces. We began with a lot of jams to get the muscles stretched out, filtering through them later to select a few tracks for release. Then we turned to the songs, and were able to bust them out in a few takes per piece. We tracked as an electric trio and I went back to do acoustic overdubs; Jimy and I also laid down some keyboard parts. The results are tracks with structure but still immediacy, as the overdubs were done in one or two takes max. The songs I think of being these augmented trio settings, rather than an arrangement of five or six parts. There is a great unity within the interlocking elements, almost as if the band takes on the form of a chimera, with three distinct heads springing from a single body. The question is—who is the lion, who claims the goat and who inhabits the dragon head?

How do you approach recording in the studio compared to your live performances? Do you prepare for your live shows or do you just go in it with little expectations?

We do prepare in a similar fashion, mainly making sure our minds are attuned to each other. Obviously for a studio session, we bring all instrumental options to the table, just so we can follow a thread of inspiration if it strikes us. As a multi-instrumentalist, I usually try to limit my choices in a live set to two stringed pieces and an oscillator box. Live there is often a shadow energy that seems to inhabit our sets, an extra bit of performative juice that is inevitable when playing in front of an audience.

How has Rhyton been a departure from your earlier work as D. Charles Speer and The Helix and NNCK? Is there anything that you particularly appreciate being able to do in this project that you couldn’t necessarily explore in earlier projects?

I think Rhyton started out as an expression of pure energy, a more cathartic approach than either the Speer band or NNCK. NNCK can be quite extreme, but usually takes more an approach of psychic mayhem rather than an emotional outpouring. Rhyton is also a more stripped down ensemble than the others, so I think it can be more direct on some level. However, elements of my guitar work between Speer and Rhyton have become more fluid, with both bands informing the other, especially as we have refined slightly and taken some newer pathways of late.

Upcoming Rhyton shows:

19 Brooklyn, NY – 129 Coffey St., Red Hook w. Raajmahal, Weyes Blood
21 Ridgewood, NY – Trans Pecos w/ Tom Carter & Pat Murano Duo

Kykeon is out November 18 on Thrill Jockey.