Patrick Best and Mikel Dimmick of Spiral Joy Band
"That needs Tibetan bowl!"
Spiral Joy Band formed a decade ago in Blacksburg, Virginia, and has seen many changes in its loose, collaborative lineup. Members Mikel Dimmick and Patrick Best, best known for their work in the long-running avant-folk outfit Pelt, now live in Madison and Mt. Horeb, respectively, and have continued Spiral Joy's exploration of extended, improvised, drone-centered performances that often incorporate harmonium, fiddle, gongs, and singing bowls. Best and Dimmick say they'll likely just perform as a duo this Saturday at Good Style Shop, when Spiral Joy Band opens for percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. But during their time in Wisconsin, they've found new collaborators, including violinist and sound artist Troy Schafer and experimental guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick, who both played on SJB's 2013 release, 13 Moons Of Doom: Birth Of The Water Dragons (which was recorded live at The Project Lodge, the space that Good Style now occupies). Spiral Joy Band can mutate quite a bit from show to show and release to release, and often play for a half-hour or more at a stretch. To enjoy it requires what you might call giving yourself over to the drone, or what you might call mustering a ton of patience, but either way their rumbling, harmonically loose masses of sound make them one of the most compelling live acts in the area. Ahead of Saturday's show, Best and Dimmick spoke with me about their approach to improvisation.
Tone Madison: Every time I've seen you, there's been a slightly different configuration—is it ever stressful figuring out the setup when it changes that much from show to show?
Mikel Dimmick: For me, no. I mean, that big gong is heavy. But no. Sometimes we just bring everything. That kind of comes out of thinking through what we want to do.
Patrick Best: And as an improviser, I've been doing it for a long time, and you kind of need stuff there. There'll be that moment when you're like, "I'm not gonna play Tibetan bowls," then something happens and you're like, "That needs Tibetan bowl!" Or "That needs this skronky fiddle." Our improv is definitely less frenetic and out-of-control than some.
Tone Madison: In Pelt there's improvisation as well, but there seems to be a bit more of a determined structure, and in Spiral Joy Band there's more a feeling that it's wide open.
Mikel Dimmick: I think Joy Band is a testing ground in some ways. Not to say that it's not trying to do something. But Pelt is something that happens only with the interaction of these four people, Patrick, Mike, Nathan, and I.
Patrick Best: Joy Band's been much more of a loose confederation, while in Pelt, we've done some collaboration, but it's very small compared to what Spiral Joy Band's done. Pelt's defined aesthetic is a lot about how the four people play with each other. In Spiral Joy Band, we do a lot more electronic instruments, we amplify stuff, while Pelt is all acoustic.
Tone Madison: Last year, you recorded a show with Andrew Fitzpatrick of Noxroy for a cassette release, 13 Moons Of Doom: Birth Of The Water Dragons. Are there other people you'd like to be able to pull into the live set?
Patrick Best: We've tried to connect up with Andrew again but our schedules have never worked out. It depends on how much time we have to put into finding people and figuring out schedules.
Tone Madison: What does the Spiral Joy Band setup let you do that you can't do in other projects?
Mikel Dimmick: I think we can mess around with different things a little more freely. It's a good way of trying out stuff.
Patrick Best: I think I'm less self-conscious in Spiral Joy Band than in other situations.
Tone Madison: Why?
Patrick Best: Mikel and my's friendship. It's our band. And Pelt as an entity has such a high standard that when it's gearing up for Pelt stuff, there's a different mindset. I've tried to learn certain instruments, I was trying to play viola, and I really tried to do that through playing with the Joy Band before I took it to play with Pelt, so it can be kind of a proving ground for some of the instruments. And there's a more open door. It's not that I'm not free to play what I want in Pelt, it just manifests differently.
Mikel Dimmick: The identity and legacy is less defined, and that means it has a little more of a ramshackle and exploratory side to it. A lot of the time, recordings start with us just trying to find our path, whereas with Pelt, there's a little more consensus.
Patrick Best: Even though we're kind of maximalists in the end, I think we try to really create clear harmonic structures in Pelt that we don't talk about in Joy Band.
Mikel Dimmick: We usually just agree on a key and go.
Patrick Best: In Pelt, we really talk about intervals that we're trying to manipulate or get to, to create larger harmonic structures. But not in a really heavy-duty La Monte Young kind of way where it's really mathematically formulated. We're going for more of a feel, and that way, because we're really listening for those harmonic intervals, and then to add little elements. In Pelt we're really building pyramids of sound, while Joy Band it's more like a riot. A little more chaotic. It's more like breathing.
Tone Madison: One thing that's consistent with Spiral Joy Band live sets is you always play for very long stretches.
Mikel Dimmick: We're trying to get it longer. We used to play all-night shows, like for three hours.
Patrick Best: They had some epic performances before I started playing with Mikel. What was your longest?
Mikel Dimmick: Maybe three or four [hours].
Tone Madison: Of the recordings you've made, do you have any particular favorites?
Mikel Dimmick: Probably Pleasure Is The Headlight. Side B on that one is probably my favorite thing. There's also this edition of 10, the 2-22-12 or 2-22-11, that disc. It was an edition of 10 that I just sort of did up and screen printed a cover for real quick, for a show.
Patrick Best: I like Tilling The Soil. That's a good CD-R. The early years, when Mikel first moved here, we had some really cool basement jams. It was all the same instruments as Pelt, but we just created some very different sonic spaces. I was trying to learn fiddle and violin at that point. Mikel's wife, Emily Keown, played oboe on one track. We were jamming and in our zone, and she stuck the oboe down into the laundry chute and started playing down into it. I don't think we even registered it. And then we're in the zone and all of a sudden she walks down in the room and starts playing along.
Mikel Dimmick: I like that track a lot. That's a fun 45-minute super-workout. We used to see how far we could push double harmoniums and make them not erase each other or camouflage each other.