The Detroit-based experimental quartet plays May 17 at the Madison Children’s Museum. (Photo by Hillary Ilyssa.)
One of the most intriguing and unclassifiable bands in the country right now is Detroit’s Saajtak, featuring the talents of Jonathan Taylor on drums and percussion, Simon Alexander-Adams on keyboards and electronics (plus visuals), former Madisonian Ben Willis (who still currently plays in the locally founded band Lovely Socialite) on electric and acoustic bass, and Alex Koi on vocals. Saajtak distinctively fuses musical elements of art and progressive rock, jazz, opera, glitch, and electronic music in thrilling, winding pieces that innovatively harness the interplay of composition and improvisation. Saajtak’s most recent release is 2018’s Hectic EP, for which the band also created a limited-edition art booklet, available just at shows.
Madisonians will get a chance to experience Saajtak this Friday, May 17 in what will likely be a strange but disarming context: The band is playing two sets at a “Robots & Unicorns”-themed edition of the Madison Children’s Museum’s Adult Swim series. In advance of this show—their first in Madison in a year and a half—Koi spoke with me via phone about the band’s formation at University of Michigan, her interest in fringe art, how she uniquely considers herself as a vocalist, the various roles improvisation has played in Saajtak’s music, and the hidden wealth of material in their repertoire.
Tone Madison: Did Saajtak initially start playing with a specific musical approach in mind?
Alex Koi: The four of us met at the University of Michigan when we were all students in the music school. We started getting together and improvising without the intention of becoming a full-fledged working band or even a performing band. Simon and I as well as Ben and Jon overlapped many years in an ensemble at U of M called The Creative Arts Orchestra, which is an all-improvising ensemble. We became friends and would get together on weekends. Over the course of the four and a half, almost five years, we’ve slowly become a band.
Tone Madison: When you talk about improvising, do you mean like in the jazz tradition of improvising or totally free improvisation?
Alex Koi: Free improv. It’s really foundational for all of us. The [aforementioned] orchestra is a free improv group. Jon and I have more specific backgrounds in jazz and improvising within a jazz tradition, but we’re all really interested in creating something spontaneously using traditional or even non-traditional instruments. Or using traditional instruments in a nontraditional way. So, in that sense, we’re aligned with anyone from Ornette Coleman to contemporary groups like Wolf Eyes, who are using improvisation with electronics and pedals to create something spontaneously.
Tone Madison: When I listened to “The Keeper” for the first time, which is the track that Ben sent to me initially, I instantly felt like you were tapping into an unplumbed sound in recent years—fearlessly fusing genres and tones in the same way artists did in the 1990s in the evolving Scandinavian gothic metal-turned-experimental rock scene. Those artists embraced trip hop, jazz-rock, ambient music, and progressive rock and a lot of them by trained/operatic singers, as with The 3rd And The Mortal or The Gathering, for instance. I’m guessing that relationship is more of a happy coincidence, but are you attempting to channel any of that energy with your approach to the band and use of instrumentation?
Alex Koi: I never think about it as an intentional inspiration in that way. We do have a whole plethora of influences from many different genres, and it just so happens I went to school for singing. I gravitate towards that instrument in that way, of wanting to use it in a way that sounds polished but at the same time unconventional or placed within an unusual soundscape. We’re not aiming to create with a particular sound in mind.
Tone Madison: Well, it really resonates with me. I think it’s because I have an especially interesting history in listening to obscure stuff. Also because you’re writing music like this now, and I’m comparing it to trends that were happening 20-25 years ago in a different part of the world. I also wanted to ask about how you use your voice as a dynamic instrument. How have your education and performance given you a unique perspective with this band?
Alex Koi: What I always think is interesting is that I don’t feel like an especially trained singer. My degree says that, but I think I learned a lot from my peers and from imitating. I also did have a couple teachers—one in particular who helped me with my technique, Caroline Helton, Associate Professor of Voice [at University of Michigan]. That’s the avenue in which I feel the most trained, as I worked with her for about two years. A lot of people think that I’m classically trained when I’m not, which is always really fascinating. I feel like I’m passing for a classical singer when I’m not.
Tone Madison: I think it’s a compliment, though, maybe.
Alex Koi: It’s a nice thing to hear. But I never felt like I belonged in any particular world. A lot of my friends were more set on classical practices; they were working on these arias. I had a few friends who were pursuing careers as jazz vocalists… learning how to scat like a trumpet. For me, I didn’t feel particularly aligned with either of those, which are generally the two types of singing that exist in American academia. I was always interested in creating my own sound and saying what I really wanted to say while developing a stronger technique.
I’ve always liked fringe music… things that are anywhere from very much so to slightly out of mainstream orbit. A lot of my [inspiration] comes from training but so much of it is coming from imitation. I’m thinking about my influences like Dolores O’Riordan from The Cranberries, Kate Bush later on in my life, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, Elizabeth Fraser [of Cocteau Twins]. In general, most of these people were pioneering vocalists who really encapsulated their own styles. And that’s always what I’ve been primarily interested in: What is my voice? What do I have to say?
I do have a lot of direct vocal influences, but at the same time, I’m so inspired by everything else happening in the song, and all of those other pieces and parts also influence the way that I sing. Anything providing a melody or rhythm, I will want to pull either the energy or enthusiasm from that… the feeling, the mood and incorporate it into what comes out of me.
Tone Madison: It’s like some spiritually focused approach. That’s very interesting. Along with that, you write the lyrics for the band, right?
Alex Koi: For the music that is out now, yes.
Tone Madison: Some of the songs—I’m trying to pick up on themes—offer this odd perspective on the physical or metaphysical journeys of a couple or partners as if you’re omnipotent narrator or something like that. Can you elaborate on writing lyrics and your biggest inspiration there?
Alex Koi: This is the hardest question I’m asked, because lyric-writing is the most challenging part of composition for me. And it’s one that I find very rewarding once it’s finished, whereas the music I find very rewarding in the process of writing it. When I think about the way that I write, and what I write about… As human beings, we’re all complex creatures. I’m very interested in history and psychology, and perhaps that’s why I’m interested in physical and metaphysical things. I like looking at and trying to understand different parts of people, and not only how we interact with each other but how we interact with ourselves and nature, buildings, time, death, and life. Because of that, the lyrics come out as multi-narrative or coming from multiple perspectives, so there are different voices within a song. Especially, as you know, some of our songs can be 11 to 13 minutes.
Another thing is that I’m a really big reader. I love fiction, and when I read your question, I was thinking about how that influences the way I write lyrics. Because in a similar way, I’m so interested by character development and the way, again, different events create reactions and those reactions create more reactions. There’s this constant chain and interconnected web of happenings and motion, and I really want to capture that in what I write.
Tone Madison: Before I formulated this question, I was thinking to describe your songs as kind of mini-novellas. How they’re sort of abstract but yet not at the same time.
Alex Koi: I really relate to that, and I’m glad it’s coming across like that.
Tone Madison: Do you want to mention any specific stories or novels that have been a point of reference for Saajtak?
Alex Koi: Because I am enamored with people and the way our brains are wired, I am attracted to twentieth century literature when authors were starting to write more from a perspective of experience instead of objectivity. Works by James Joyce, for example. Virginia Woolf, who started playing with new modes of expression and more abstract narration. Even [Marcel] Proust—in the case of Swann’s Way, how one little event like eating a biscuit can bring back this whole flood of memories that lasts the course of a several hundred-page epic. I also love post-modernist literature. I hated T.S. Eliot growing up, but he really grew on me. Also I read a book lately, which I think is my [current] favorite called House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Not only do you have multiple voices speaking throughout the book- different characters offering their firsthand experiences but also photographs. It was this total multimedia novel. It was so amazing. Also, in general, beyond books, just works of art or theater that incorporate lots of different mediums like Ryoji Ikeda’s stuff. I really love interdisciplinary modern theater.
Tone Madison: We already talked about improvisation a little bit, but I want to retrace that question. Because I think the role of improvisation in the group is interesting. The first thing you released as a band was not a proper album, I guess, but these three improvisations that were recorded live. One is a shorter piece that’s a little more instrumentally driven and the two others are of more sprawling lengths in the free jazz tradition where you have a more prominent role. But instead of scatting on those—like one of your contemporaries, Amirtha Kidambi, might do, in her spiritually similar group Elder Ones—do you know her or that group?
Alex Koi: I actually just met her like two weeks ago.
Tone Madison: Oh, wow.
Alex Koi: Yeah, I did a voice lesson with her. She rocks. I’m a big fan.
Tone Madison: Cool. But instead of doing that [scatting], you’re singing intelligibly in English on one of the tracks, “Hallmark.” And on “Détente,” you create this intense, ethereal atmosphere through an extended fermata. Since that time, you’ve scaled down the use of improvisation. Could you talk about maintaining improvisation in more composed pieces and how you now approach that as opposed to how you first started?
Alex Koi: I don’t see it so much as an evolution of going from more free improv to more composed with respect what we are putting out and releasing. I’m sure that is what it looks like. I would love to put out another free improv album like Spectral Drips. That would be really cool.
We now incorporate improvisation in a way that sets us up for writing compositions more fully. We’ll get together, and we’ll improvise a bunch. Perhaps Simon [Alexander-Adams] will have new sounds he’s created with Ableton and he wants to try something out, and we’ll use that to develop things farther. Usually before we practice any of our music or get into the actual writing, the first thing we do at rehearsal is the ritual of improvising. It’s kind of like the way we greet each other.
We record all our rehearsals and catalogue them. “This is a continuation of this one idea we had from three weeks ago,” or “This is a work-in-progress. Let’s give it a working title.” “Okay, now this improvisation from four years ago, that I was checking out the other day… let’s try playing with these ideas.” So, we’ll bring some track in that’s four years old and say, “Cool. How can we develop this into a song?” We use it as a seed from which to create larger-scale compositions.
That said, there’s a second way in which we employ improvisation in our music-making, particularly in the avenue of performance. We really like changing things up when we perform, because that is very exciting to us. So, oftentimes we’ll improvise—maybe we’ll want to do a whole piece of improvisation in the middle of these two songs, or perhaps we’ll want to create an improvised introduction into the first song. Sometimes these moments are planned out ahead of time; and we’ll put it in the setlist as such. And just as often, moments of improvisation will happen spontaneously. We’ll be finishing a song, for example, and all of sudden I know that Ben [Willis] is going to keep going [on bass]. Once I’m aware of that intention coming from Ben, and we all hear that, we’ll react to it accordingly and move with it. Basically, it becomes the leader in that moment through which we can all participate or choose not to participate.
Tone Madison: So, just give Ben his space to do an electric bass solo perhaps? Well, an untraditional bass solo.
Alex Koi: [Laughs] That would be kinda funny, actually. Yeah, Ben has an amazing pedalboard that allows him to have this huge palette of sounds. His bass solo could be traditional—he’s capable of all that. Usually, it’s really badass noise stuff that really clicks in the context of this group.
Tone Madison: I think it’s so cool that you record your rehearsals and use them in that way. I would totally do that, because I’m obsessed with documentation. As a final note to this improvisation question, I mentioned that you do have English lyrics on that track, “Hallmark.” Were those written out beforehand, or did you come up with those words as you were performing the piece?
Alex Koi: For “Part 1,” I was using a poem that I had been working on at the time, which ultimately became the lyrics for our song “Spokes.” It’s either that I assigned these words to “Spokes” after this improvisation or that I’d already done so but was choosing to play them out in a new, improvisatory way. I can’t remember. Either way, it’s emblematic of my process of testing words in various homes before understanding where they’re best suited. Spectral Drips was recorded in Ben’s Ypsilanti basement concurrently with the development of the Spokes EP.
As for “Part 2,” these lyrics were improvised. I’d do my best to transcribe, but I’d like the words to remain abstract as many of them sound amorphic semantically, even to my ears as the creator. I like that flavor so I’ll let it sit.
Tone Madison: It’d be like using magnetic poetry or three dissociated words as a prompt for writing stream-of-consciousness. But I’m a writer as opposed to a vocalist. What do you find to be the most thrilling and/or challenging piece—or what’s maybe the most interesting to perform live? Why?
Alex Koi: That will vary depending on the songs in the set and also how developed those songs are. We occasionally will put songs in a set that are still works-in-progress. And because of that, those can feel the most challenging, but it would depend on the evening, who was there, the space, the sound system. The four of us would probably each have a different thing to say. We’re working on a new song right now that requires Simon to simultaneously play his left foot like a kick drum [on a keyboard pedal] and also turn an LFO knob on his keyboard really fast and also play with his other hand. [Laughs] For me, sometimes it’s hardest to play songs when I feel a particular emotional connection to them. Sometimes I’ll cry on stage while I’m singing, because it’s just so moving. I’m doing what I love to do.
Tone Madison: Reflecting on your last release, the two-song EP, Hectic. It’s pretty similar to the Spokes release from 2017, but I thought it had a slightly brighter and poppier sensibility to it on the whole. Yet it still retains your signature and bold experimentation. Where do you think the band is headed in terms of future musical output? And where would you personally like to take it? Which you hinted at in your previous answer.
Alex Koi: We’re working on so much new music right now. So much material. Two, maybe three albums worth. But it’s work-in-progress. That said, within the whole atlas of songs and ideas right now, there’s a lot of tenderness, and at the same time, some of our heaviest material musically… meaning almost like art metal.
Tone Madison: I’m very excited about that. I have a radio show where I play nothing but fringe music like art songs and avant-prog.
Alex Koi: Sweet. With respect to where I would like the music to go, I think I’m learning that the music really will just speak for itself.
Tone Madison: I like the idea of exploring extreme ends of things, as you just mentioned. Having tenderness, which I guess could translate to a mellower vibe, and then at the same time, going to the extreme opposite or nearly the opposite.
Alex Koi: That’s very true. Something that I love about our band is the arcs. There’s a lot of dynamic to it, and I think we’re only getting better at understanding the heights and the depths that we can achieve.
Tone Madison: A last question specific to your performance here at the Children’s Museum, which seems like a spirited and yet unusual place to perform. So, they have this arts-and-crafts theme of “Robots and Unicorns.” I was just wondering if you had anything planned with optics or theatrics that you’d be willing to talk about ahead of the event?
Alex Koi: We haven’t really talked about it, but there will be something. We’ll see. [laughs]
Tone Madison: Maybe a better question, then, is do you normally have some kind of stage show? When it’s appropriate, do you incorporate visuals? Doesn’t Simon do some video installation work?
Alex Koi: Simon does a lot of video installation work and even more recently. I’m pretty amazed at the work that he does. We are working on an audio-visual piece, but that production has only been performed once. We’re hoping to take that on the road sooner rather than later. So that is definitely another element that we’re working with, that we’re just starting to tap into. But the possibilities are endless.
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