Track By Track: Dan Rosenboom, Absurd in the Anthropocene

Trumpeter/composer/producer Dan Rosenboom embraces the chaos on his new release, Absurd in the Anthropocene, released on January 31. The release is in line with his abstract musicianship and virtuous experimentalism and draws on such inspirations as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Frank Zappa among others, as well as the complicated and surreal times that we live in.

“The title of this latest album,” he tells us, “is the current geologic era in which humans are having a major impact on the planet. And the “absurd” part? Well, just look around, check out the news or social media… it’s insane everywhere … But rather than going for a biting critical indictment, I’m trying to redirect those feelings of chaos and cognitive dissonance by turning toward our inner humanity. I want to take all that emotional fuel, and turn it into something creative, spontaneous and beautiful.”

We asked Rosenboom to tell us a little bit about each track of Absurd in the Anthropocene, to better understand the inspiration behind each song and some of the work that went into the making of this new album.

“Mr. Lizard Said”

The album opens with “Mr. Lizard Said,” which is a slightly sardonic response to a Federico Garcia Lorca poem called “The Old Lizard,” in which a man muses about death at a lizard sunning itself in a path. I say “at” because he just talks at the lizard and ascribes assumptions about the lizard’s life without any response from the lizard. So, I thought, well what does the lizard have to say? Maybe it still dances in the desert by moonlight. Maybe it has lots of life left to live. Maybe… well, you get the idea. Humans don’t have all the answers all the time.

When we first started planning this album, I really wanted to do a trio track with producer Jeff Babko on keys and Zach Danziger on drums. We had done this once before live, and it was just way too much fun to resist recording. I hadn’t necessarily planned on this being the opener, but it just landed so perfectly and was a cool way to launch this epic ride!

 

“Lemonade”

I wrote this tune on the morning of our final session for Absurd In The Anthropocene. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, punk, metal, and grunge were really exciting to me. Right when I started buying my own albums, grunge was dominating the scene, and bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden were on nearly constant rotation in my room. I wanted to write something that tipped its hat that way and gave space for drummer Zach Danziger, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and guitarist Tim Conley to totally rock out. The angular intro and outro melodies, peppered with Sabbath-y riffs, and the psycho-blues guitar solo section just all bring a big smile to my face!

The title came the day after we recorded it. I had an acoustic jazz show, where we played this tune as a ballad, which worked beautifully, but the venue was having some technical difficulties with the equipment before our set. There was an older gentleman there offering words of comfort to the venue manager: “It’s alright. Let’s make lemonade!” So when it came time to announce the tune, I just spontaneously called it “Lemonade” and the title stuck.

 

“Pushed to the Edge of Ideas by Dispassionate Bias-Algorithm Bots”

One of the absurd realities of modern life is how much we are influenced by algorithms, code, and unthinking, unfeeling bots. Our online lives are so dictated by programs whose only directive is to get us to click on the next thing. We’re always being pushed toward the extremes of any line of thinking we’re willing to entertain, and the result is more than apparent in the stratification of our culture. We’re literally being “pushed to the edge of ideas by dispassionate bias-algorithm bots.”

When I wrote this tune, I was thinking about that as a state of reality, and wrote the whole melody spontaneously without meters or bar-lines, basically like a written free improvisation. I do that a lot in my writing. The result is a crazy romp through a lot of different time signatures, but it’s really all about making the needle jump on a manic groove. The pulse keeps getting nudged, bobbled, and thrown off balance, like our ideas, and the melody is trying to navigate its way through that minefield. And this band of drummer Gary Novak, bassist Jerry Watts Jr., keyboardist Jeff Babko, and saxophonist Gavin Templeton just owns this vibe with scary virtuosity! It’s pretty astounding to be a part of that energy!

 

“Still”

There’s something simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic about “Still” that I really love. I wrote this wistful, melancholic tune sitting in front of Clyfford Still’s majestic PH-143 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and when we decided to record it for this album, I had the idea of doing it as almost a 50’s Miles Davis meets Blade Runner vibe. Again, Jeff Babko, Jerry Watts Jr., Gary Novak, and Gavin Templeton (this time on piano) just nailed a sound that feels pensive and placid yet rich and dimensional, suspended in time yet present in the now.

 

“Heliopteryx”

I’ve always loved improvising over gnarly, driving breakbeats, and so with guys like Tim Lefebvre and Zach Danziger driving the bus, this vibe was a no-brainer. But what really makes this tune unique, is the marriage of that sub-synthy sound with a really angular atonal, almost contemporary-classical type horn line. Mix that with a little bit of crunchy, metallic, bared-teeth distortion, and you get something like this! When we recorded with Tim, Zach, and Gavin Templeton, along with Troy Zeigler on electronics processing, the sound reminded me of some imaginary mecha-dinosaur-bird that probably flies into outer space amid sparks and lasers. So I made up this word for a title: “helio” (sun) + “pteryx” (wing) = “Heliopteryx.” I just thought it was a cool sci-fi concept and fit with the “absurd” idea.

Later, video artist Travis Flournoy came up with this amazing and hilarious concept for a music video in which the mad scientist “Dr. Boom” (me) and his trusty assistant (Gavin) discover a Heliopteryx egg, which they hatch a la Jurassic Park. Lo and behold the Heliopteryx becomes a source of unlimited free energy for the world, but things are never that simple. The Heliopteryx (played by the amazing dancer, Aubre Hill) gets out of control, escapes, and brings about the apocalypse. The video is psychedelic and hilarious, and was so much fun to make!

 

“Nebulounge”

Free improvisation is one of my favorite ways to make music. It’s just raw, unfiltered communication between artists. This tune was actually a free improvisation with Gavin Templeton, Jeff Babko, Tim Lefebvre, and Zach Danziger, and while we were playing, I actually didn’t know if we were rolling tape. I thought we were just having fun. The result was just so groovy and surreal, that it ultimately became the first single that Gearbox released! The title is basically a combination of “Nebula” and “Lounge,” invoking the idea of a sort of weird cocktail bar in a distant part of the galaxy. Travis Flournoy and I put together a video for this tune that really captures that bizarre “what am I doing here?” vibe.

 

“Apes in Rapture”

When producer Jeff Babko told me that drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Jimmy Johnson were both down to record for Absurd In The Anthropocene, I was really excited, and a little intimidated, to be honest. Both are heroes of mine, especially being a huge Frank Zappa fan, and I wanted to put together something really special for this opportunity. So, in a flurry of inspiration, I wrote “Apes in Rapture” over about two weeks. From the mixed meters to the sort of frenetically joyous character, the piece is an homage to Zappa, and a feature for both Colaiuta and Johnson’s virtuosity, as well as for jazz saxophone icon David Binney, who takes a brilliant solo early in the tune.  

As the song developed, I was hearing a full horn section – three saxes, two trumpets, and two trombones – in addition to the rhythm section, and so called several of my close friends and long-time collaborators, Gavin Templeton, Brian Walsh, Javier Gonzalez, Ryan Dragon, and Juliane Gralle to join in. With a 10-piece band we needed a beautiful room to record and were fortunate to secure a spot at the legendary Capitol Records Studio A at the very beginning of January 2019. So, after a whirlwind of planning and only a couple hours of sleep, we rolled into Capitol Records and threw down this behemoth of a piece!

It was a real moment of arrival for me to hear my music performed by these living legends and close friends, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the experience!

The title “Apes in Rapture” reflects the almost giddy character in the music, and is a funny self-reflection: in our best moments, we humans are all just apes in rapture!

 

“Forget What You Know”

This tune is another free improvisation with Tim Lefebvre, Zach Danziger, Jeff Babko, and Gavin Templeton, and to me it’s just blisteringly exciting, and weird in the best way! I chose the title “Forget What You Know” as a nod to the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” – when you seek to learn, can be very helpful to “forget what you know.” Or as Yoda would say “unlearn what you have learned.”

Drummer Victor Indrizzo came by the studio the day we were recording to film a little bit of the action, and for this music video, I took some of that footage and combined with some amazing shots from the MorYork Gallery in Highland Park, CA. It’s super trippy, and a ton of fun!

 

“Green Moon”

This is another tune I wrote extemporaneously without meter or bar-lines. One of my favorite things about writing this way is that I’m always surprised at how the tune takes shape once it’s in the hands of a band like this one with Gary Novak, Jerry Watts Jr., Gavin Templeton, and Jeff Babko. I love the way Jerry’s bass lines roll through the driving seven feel, and the way Gary’s intensity just builds and builds as we all swirl around toward the end. The title was something I picked out of thin air, but I didn’t realize until later that it was already out there in the zeitgeist. Apparently it was a big online hoax in 2016…look it up. Pretty hilarious! But I had no idea…

 

“Obsidian Butterfly”

I wrote this song on the day Chris Cornell died. Soundgarden was obviously on the brain and I wanted to write an epic anthemic elegy for that band that had meant so much to me growing up. Gavin Templeton has a really iconic baritone saxophone sound, and I wanted to write a feature for him as well. Once I knew we had the opportunity to do this with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Jimmy Johnson on bass, I had to call two of my favorite guitarists, Alexander Noice and Jake Vossler, to make this one just huge and heavy. And Vinnie brings it home with an insanely epic drum solo!

Around the time I wrote this, I had also been reading a little bit about Aztec deities and found this amazing character called Itzpapalotl, the Obsidian Butterfly. She is the Feminine Warrior who ruled over the paradise realm where humans were created and was the guardian of the souls of dead children. She could take the form of a fierce skeletal butterfly with jaguar claws and wings tipped with obsidian knives. Such a powerful and intense figure seemed like an obvious choice to invoke in the title. And while I have no illusions that this tune will have any impact on the crisis at our Southern border, I feel like the kids in cages could use a guardian angel…or raging, fierce butterfly!

Aubre Hill, who is a wonderfully expressive dancer, choreographed a solo dance piece to this tune, which we filmed as a single-shot Steadicam music video as well. It looks incredible and really embodies the feminine power of this character and music!

 

“Drowning on the High Ground”

I had to end this epic journey with a nod to the master, Ornette Coleman. This tune is a slight homage to “Lonely Woman” and it gave Gavin, Jerry, Jeff, Gary, and I a chance to really stretch out and fly. The title is a bit of a double-entendre: it’s both an indictment of sanctimonious attitudes online, and a warning about climate change. I don’t want to wade too far into the realm of politics here, but how are we supposed to implement progress toward the goals that most of us share if we alienate and demonize the very people who could help us because we don’t see all their positions as perfectly aligned with our own? It’s madness, and it’s absurd.

I don’t mean to end on a dark note, by any means. I actually feel this tune is as hopeful as it is biting, and that it’s eerie unanswered-question of an ending offer the chance to go forth and connect with each other. My real hope here is that the album leaves people in a place of reflection and inspiration and that we can move a little closer to a world where the effect we have on the planet is overwhelmingly positive.

For more information on Dan Rosenboom and Absurd in the Anthropocene, visit him online

Featured photo of Dan Rosenboom by Aubre Hill.

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