an interview with Black Market Translation
100% improvised poetry-infused rock 'n' roll music...
Today in The Molly Zone…..an interview with the 100% improv rock band Black Market Translation!
Photo: Scott Rowland of ALOC Media
Black Market Translation are Justin Anderson (drums), Chris Eason (guitar) and Matt Clifford aka Cliff (bass) — three poetry-minded experimental rockers who together make an astonishing amount of improvised music in the Denver, Colorado music scene. They are the last of my guest recommendations via Alex White aka Commodity Creature, my first ever guest on The Molly Zone newsletter, and they are more proof that the musical connections people have with one another can take you to some wonderful places.
To think that through Alex, I have talked to an improvisational bassist, a jazz guitarist, a vibraphonist and beatmaker, and now Black Market Translation….the musical links are getting 🔥FORGED IN FIRE🔥….stronger than any algorithmic assumption….”Tell a friend” continues to be the most powerful recommendation engine there is.
ANYWAY, Black Market Translation are making unique and wild tunes together, whether posted up on a strip club patio, vibing in a basement or going nuts in the woods. Their roots are a heady stew of jam band heritage and beatnik poetics and they pride themselves on creating anything-goes atmospheres where people can skyrocket beyond their creative egos. It was truly fun to chat with them and if you like getting weird, you’ll like this interview and their music. Let’s go!!
This interview has been edited for length + clarity :)
Cliff: We were just watching the video with Alex. We've known him for six years and it actually captured what he does really, really well.
MO: Nice. I'm glad to hear it. [sees a cat come onto Zoom screen] Oh my God, this is so good.
Cliff: This is Bjorknado de BoopBoop. We call her Boop Boop.
MO: I love how much cats love Zoom. I feel like they want to get in there and see what's going on.
Cliff: We play those fish video games. She watches the screen. Yeah, she’s aware of technology.
MO: Would you start by introducing each of yourselves and what you do within the band?
Cliff: I'm Cliff. I play bass.
Chris: I'm Chris, I play guitar.
Justin: And I’m Justin, I play drums.
MO: Amazing. So when did you first start all playing together and how did you meet?
Cliff: Justin and I started playing together about ten years ago. I was jamming with this other poet friend of mine and we needed a drummer. So we put on Craigslist, "Poet seeking drummer," and Justin responded to our weird little ad. We started doing a lot of weird-type music, and then met Chris about two years later when we were doing more normal music and needed a guitarist.
We had a couple singers and none of them really lasted. So we were like, let's just do the weird thing, if we're capable of it. In about 2016, we started doing the improvised music that we do full-time. We're kind of amazed that it worked out.
MO: What was your background of playing music, and specifically of playing improvised music?
Justin: I played with a couple of jam bands, going back 20 years or so. When I play music, it’s always had a little bit of improv in it. Even when I played straight rock stuff, I still found a way to fit it in there. But this band being 100% improv is kind of unique.
Cliff: A lot of jam bands will say: We're doing this [memorized] part and then we're doing that part, but maybe we’re not sure how we're going to get from this part to that part...we do it with no safety net, really.
We have roots in poetry too, in the Naropa writing program community. It’s a Buddhist poetry school co-founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. That's where I met a bunch of people who are into this kind of stuff. So we’ve got a modern, improvisational, beatnik, avant-garde influence, and we took that and applied it to music.
The three of us are the core of the band, but we jam with a lot of people. We've played with probably hundreds of people at this point. We do an event called Punketry where we do our music and have poets perform their poems over it. We try to keep the experimentation and the openness, and let the process be a big part of it — not trying to write some perfect song, but trying to create something you might not have created if you were trying to write it. I think improv helps you get out of the way of your own ego so something else comes out that you probably wouldn't have created if you're just sitting down like, “Let's write a song.”
MO: Is playing live together the main kind of expression of Black Market Translation, or do you record music as well?
Justin: We play live, but we record music too. With recording, it becomes more of a different product, but the essence is still there. During quarantine we played a lot of ‘movie soundtracks’. Chris would bring over a projector and we'd watch movies and play to them and stream that.
Cliff: We livestream all of our practices, too!
Justin: Recording is a a whole different energy, but it’s just as cool.
Cliff: With improv, the environment really affects what comes out. If we have 25 minutes to play at a show, we might play a faster and harder set, but if we're recording in the basement with ourselves, we might play for 80, 90 minutes and throw in some more spacious parts, and some loops and samples that technologically we can't always do live. And we do have our fourth studio album coming out soon.
MO: Oh! So tell me a bit about the album — what goes into deciding to make your style of playing a bit more permanent.
Cliff: We worked with this one producer, Shaun Chapman. We’ve played with his band a bunch of times, and it’s good working with him because he gets what we’re doing. So for recording, we’ll take a weekend — set up on the Friday, track Saturday and Sunday, and get five or six hours or so recorded.
And then we do the arduous process of listening to ourselves with an intensely critical ear, which is always an exercise in ego, or lack thereof. And then we gotta winnow it down into the best parts, hopefully. So for this album, we had four hours tracked that we got down to an hour and 40 minutes. The guy who's mastering it was like, “This is a magnum opus.” And we’re like, this is a weekend!
MO: Ha! Okay, do you have an album title yet for it?
Cliff: “Triogenes.” There's a stoic philosopher named Diogenes, and we're a trio.
MO: Is that the guy who walked around in the town square, possibly wearing a barrel?
MO: I know that guy! Well, not personally...
Cliff: He was the most punk rock of the Stoics. He thought your actions and your spirit should be as united as possible. And I feel like improv music is like that.
MO: I gotta revisit the Diogenes Wikipedia article. I feel like I've read it before.
Cliff: It’s a highly enjoyable read.
MO: What would you say is the vibe at a Black Market Translation show?
Cliff: Oh, man. I usually look at my feet most of the time because I get distracted really easily and lose the whole improv flow. Sometimes we’ll play bar shows where people don't know who we are. A few weeks ago some guy was yelling “AC/DC” at us. But then we'll play shows where the poets are having a party out in the woods and they want a band to come, so we'll play for four hours and they'll be all tripping out and vibing and grabbing the microphone and coming up and playing with us. It’s different every time.
Justin: Hopefully the shows are coherent enough that you have something to latch onto, but there’s always an element of uncertainty. Between that mixture of those feelings, you get a lot of people filling in the gaps with their own intuitiveness and making their own connections to what's going on, or turning internal, hearing stuff from the inside. Two different people might be hearing two whole different things. It’s weird. There's been weird reactions to us, but it’s a lot of fun.
Cliff: Yeah, we do get a lot of, “Never seen anything like that before!”
Justin: Once people get that little bit of info of what improv really is, it becomes a eureka moment. And that even comes across on the record too — like if you listen to a part repeat a couple of times, it's going to sound like it was meant to be.
Cliff: It's coming up with a structure on the spot and then playing within that structure, right?
Justin: And hopefully varying it enough — the bane of doing this would be getting into a slump of repeating things and not expanding into something different. With improv, you have the same problems that any artist comes across when they're trying to do something different, but still remain true to why what they do. Bands can write a song influenced by something — we can be influenced by the band that plays before us. If we’re the first band [on a bill], it's a blank slate where we don't know the vibe or energy level.
Cliff: And then sometimes we do the opposite energy level anyway. If it’s a heavy show, we'll play a quieter set.
MO: That's so funny. I totally didn't think of the context of improvising and playing off of the other bands playing. It reminds me of when I write fiction and whoever the last author I've read, I'll be like, Oh, I'm going to write like them.
Justin: And you don't even set out to do it. You are what you eat, right?
MO: So is there a show that you've played recently that has stood out for you in some way?
Cliff: We played on the back of a flatbed truck at a show...what kind of truck was that, Chris?
Chris: Some kind of ‘50 or ‘60s truck…
Cliff: Yeah, we played these gardens in the middle of like in the woods near Fort Collins, on top of an old flatbed.
Justin: There were bones all over the place.
Cliff: It was all decorated for Halloween. It was like the culmination of a day poetry workshops. Yeah, that one was pretty cool. We also play in this poetry compound in the mountains all summer, and that’s fun. All the poets will trip out and we'll play our weird stuff.
MO: How would you describe how you fit into the Denver music scene in general?
Cliff: There are so many different kinds of shows…
Justin: There are the hippie places, and the bars…
Cliff: We'll play variety shows, we'll play punk shows, we'll play metal shows. Happy hours, afternoon things.
Justin: We played...a skating thing?
Cliff: A roller derby! We play on a strip club patio every few months…but then we do bookstores and churches, because our stuff is adaptable, we're not hawking the same thing every time.
Justin: An airplane hangar…a skate park.
MO: My gosh, you really have played everywhere.
Chris: Burlesque shows.
Cliff: We've played at comedy shows, in between comedians.
Justin: We don't really have a home. That's why we have to get our home wherever they give us. When we do get our own crowd, it's going to be the most diverse crowd of any band.
Cliff: We are the world.
Justin: Uniting the entire world. To put it modestly. [all laughing]
Cliff: The key is just to not have words. As soon as you start talking, people disagree with you.
MO: Ah yeah, words codify it into something, as opposed to music people can kind of project themselves onto.
Cliff: There was a guy who came up to me after [a show] and was like, “Are you guys a Christian band?” I was like, “Yeah sure, we could be.” He was nice. He was like, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to give you guys shit. I'm just not on acid right now.”
MO: I think my only other question is, what you are looking forward to as a band in the near or far-distant future?
Cliff: Oh, megastardom, obviously.
Justin: We’re hitting the festival circuit and we're going to be big in Europe, if they let us. Then we’ll come back and everyone will realize…the Prodigal Band returns.
Cliff: We've been throwing a lot of shit on a lot of walls and we feel like something's going to stick sometime. We've been playing a lot of good shows — Punketry at a bunch of different places. We had like nine poets lined up this weekend who are all fucking incredible. And the album is the next big thing. And Chris just got a cat, Peanut Butter. So now we've got two cats in the band.