Evil Genius is an experimental jazz trio out of Los Angeles featuring Max Kutner on guitar, Mike “Bonepocket” Lockwood on drums, and Stefan Kac on tuba. They kicked off their 2017 tour in Phoenix and I had the privilege of catching the show and hosting the band at my house. I met Max at the Blue Mouth Promotions dinner at NAMM in January.
Max is the guitarist for several bands, including the Grandmothers of Invention and The Magic Band (see also Captain Beefheart). He’s also good friends and a collaborator with Mike Keneally. You could say we hit it off pretty quickly when we met.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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AG: This is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and we’ve got the band Evil Genius here from Los Angeles. You guys wanna introduce yourselves and what you play and how you got to know each other?
Mike: Sure. My name is Mike Lockwood. I play drums and am from Reno, Nevada.
Max: I’m Max Kutner and I play guitar. I’m from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Stefan: I’m Stefan Kac. I play tuba and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
AG: And you’re all based in LA now? What brought you to LA?
Max: Cal Arts .
AG: Oh? Is that where you all met?
Max: I met Mike in Reno, actually. We went to the same bachelor’s school.
Mike: Same bachelor party.
Stefan: Or several…
AG: Can you tell us a little about your music?
Mike: This band was sort of started by Max Kutner, so I’ll let him take that.
Max: I really wanted to put together a group with these people. It happened to be tuba, guitar, and drums. It could have easily been something else. But, yeah, that’s really all I was thinking about when I wanted to do it. I wanted to play with Mike forever. Finally found an excuse and I wanted to play with Stefan. And here it is.
AG: I’m so glad I got to see you guys play last night. Seriously, that was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. It could have just been the atmosphere and I know you guys were exhausted, but just being in that small place and seeing you play up close and personal. And the music… What stunned me was just total creative freedom. It wasn’t like, “free jazz” or something like that, it was just people expressing creative fun and art. Can you tell me about your composition approach and how you guys put these crazy songs together?
Stefan: Like Max said, he got us together because he wanted to work with us as musicians and as people, not so much because of the instrumentation. So, for that reason, we all bring a lot of different backgrounds. Our three backgrounds are pretty different, although there’s enough overlap, obviously, that we can work together. It gives you a situation where that freedom aspect is very constructive for us because there actually are lots of possibilities for things that could happen because of all the different things we all do and have done in other places.
Compositionally, I’ll be honest, it took me a whole cycle of a tour and a record and some other things before I really knew what I wanted to write for this group. I had to do a lot of sketching, a lot of drafts, a lot of revision, and I don’t even want to say I thought about it a lot, but I had to let it settle and percolate, ruminate, whatever you wanna call it, before this next batch of tunes that we drew on a lot at the show last night presented themselves. And those were much more designed for these guys specifically whereas things that I had before for us were things I’d already had done and we made them work.
Now we have more of a custom repertoire for the band that actually comes out of the band, comes out of things that we’ve done. As we were talking earlier, the titles of the tunes come out of band events, events in band history, etc. etc., which I think everyone in a band knows how that works. That’s not anything novel, but it’s good to have arrived at that point where there’s actually a body of work that we ourselves can draw on and be ours. Whereas we didn’t necessarily know exactly what we were right away.
Max: Yeah. I think that part of it is always going to stay undecided and I’m totally cool with that. There’s something that can’t really be defined about all the abstract things that are happening, a working relationship like this, whether it’s happening live, compositionally… That’s stuff that I feel works best when it’s not completely defined. It’s always developing. It’s not to say that we’re throwing our hands back and saying, “It’s whatever.” It’s always evolving and changing. It’s a real living thing.
AG: You’re reading a lot of sheet music throughout the night. All three of you. Are the songs more like jazz pieces where there’s very compositional stuff, then there’s “okay, we’re gonna go break for a little while, then we’re going to come back to it…”
Mike: There’s all sorts of charts. Some of them are lead sheet-ish. Very few of them, but… You go that direction and then some things are completely orchestrated, notated exactly. At least for these two guys, most of the charts don’t have any drum information so my role has been to–while they dig through reading, I dig through also reading and trying to make sense of what I feel like should happen with their parts.
AG: I told you this last night. Until last night, Dave King from The Bad Plus was the most exciting drummer I’d ever seen live. And then I saw what you were doing and I was like, “I can’t even believe how this guy thinks.” Who are some of your big influences? I hear a lot of Henry Cow in the band, I don’t know if that’s…
Max: Sure. Sure.
Mike: I have no… That’s not…
AG: Well, for you on the drums, who are your inspirations? It was so stunning!
AG: Yeah there was a lot of polyrhythmic stuff going on. You were playing lots of different rhythms and changing the feel. It was great.
Mike: The influences have been wider than I would feel comfortable talking about to some fellow jazz musicians. That’s not true, I would talk about it, but it’s all over the map.
AG: And you used a lot of percussion and percussive…
AG: Not instruments, but, yeah, trash.
Mike: Found instrument things.
Max: Yeah, we don’t have the baguette bag on this tour, unfortunately. We played for this radio station in Santa Cruz called KPIG and we usually travel without a drum kit and we just played this tiny space and we were kind of like, “Okay, what are we going to give Mike to use?” He said, “I have this stuff. Let’s make this happen.” Things like “cymbal on ground,” baguette bag, toys…
Stefan: I proposed that we rename the band at that point to Bang on the Baguette, but the proposal was not taken by the other guys in the band.
Max: But, yeah, that’s part of it.
AG: How long have you been together as Evil Genius?
Mike: What is it? 3?
Stefan: 3 years at this point, although we didn’t play a lot the first year or so. Mike was living in a couple different places for a while until very recently. So, we’ve had the band for a lot longer than our amount of actual playing out might dictate, but now we’re all gathered in Los Angeles. We’re looking forward to being more functional on an ongoing basis.
AG: Speaking of “basis”–bad joke here–hearing you play the tuba in the band, it’s clear there are very normal bass lines going on, but then there’s a lot of bebop parts going on too. I don’t know what the dynamic of a jazz band would be with a tuba playing a bass. I don’t know if that’s a standard arrangement.
Mike: I think it’s nice that you say it that way, that you wouldn’t assume. Most people would assume that he’s just playing bass in the band, but Stefan definitely does that, but so much more. Max was playing bass a little bit last night, too. Passing the roles is something that enables us to be more free, like you were saying earlier.
AG: So tell me about the dynamic of having you playing tuba in this band and how you approach the instrument in this experimental music.
Stefan: When I write I approach guitar and tuba as two horn parts knowing that if I got any grander ambitions I have more guitar stuff that can happen because of multiple notes. At the writing stage, I look at it just as sort of two contrapuntal lines and don’t really worry so much about function unless the style dictates doing something. If there’s a clear bass harmonic, clear soul function, something like that. That can still happen.
Writing-wise, I think of counterpoint. Playing-wise, I got way into bebop playing in high school and college and didn’t give a lot of thought to even functioning as a bass instrument. I would only do it when I was sort of forced to, which looking back on it is sort of weird, but that’s just the way it worked out. It wasn’t until I got out of school and out doing stuff, going to a jam session…
Once, I walked in and could immediately see the bass player was sweating and panting and unhappy, probably been there all night playing 25-minute long versions of Stella by Starlight and sees me come in and take the tuba out. After the tune, puts the bass down and says, “Oh, thank God, there’s another bass player here. Can you…” and I was like, “Hey, I don’t really do that. I’m a horn player. I don’t do the bass stuff.” And he looks at me and is like, “You’re a tuba player.” And I’m standing there in front of this guy I’ve never met and I’m like, “Damn, I am a tuba player. That’s kind of messed up that I don’t know how to do this.”
So that was one thing that happened. And then, once I got into it, I realized it’s fun to be the bass instrument. You have more responsibility. You’re a part of the rhythm section “Vulcan mind meld ” thing. When I learned that and started doing it, I got hooked on that. So, I do play as the bass instrument in a lot of different jazz settings and other “rock-ish” weird gigs that come along.
I played in a polka band for a couple years and we would play rock tunes because there’s rock tunes those bands play and it’s like you’re a rock band with an accordion and tuba instead of guitar and bass. That kind of thing can totally work. But the final sort of synthesis stage of all this was when I got hooked up with people who were really into the Bill Frisell /Joe Lovano /Paul Motian trio and, I hate to say “similar groups” because there’s no other group like that, but that type of group, that era of “jazz music” where not only were roles not as clearly defined, but the group interplay and the strength of the individual voices was such that the roles couldn’t really contain those people and the instruments they were playing.
When I started working with peers who were really into that way of playing, then the external pressure was, “No, I want you to be able to do that” and if you’re both or neither, you go back and forth. I was like, “Wow, I can’t do that. That’s really hard.” It took a long time to get comfortable. I’m still not super comfortable. It’s very compartmentalized because of the way I went through this process, which I think was a good way to learn. I got to focus on one and then the other, but putting them together is not a simple thing, necessarily.
This group has been great for me in that way and it’s giving me a lot of new ideas and it’s gotten me out of that box a lot more. I do come from those two functions and trying to put them together, I just go with stuff as it comes.
AG: There’s so much baton passing between the three of you. It’s almost like each person kinda takes a turn at leading the band and I don’t know if that’s a compositional thing, but it’s clear you’re listening and communicating. Rhythmically, Mike might start doing something, and then Max will start doing something different rhythmically, and the whole band starts to gravitate around that. Is that something that evolved through your communication style on the instruments?
Mike: I would say that it’s a byproduct of just being improvisers at our core. That’s probably what probably drives each of us to our playing music like this. Like you said, there’s tons of sheet music, there’s lots of notes, and lots of things to focus on other than the improvising, but that is sort of the root. The communication thing takes–it’s hard to do this, but it needs to float above all the other material.
Max: Yeah. I would say that’s the thing. It’s very fluid. When I said forming a group with these particular people, I kind of expected that would happen and it wouldn’t stop happening. It’s keep developing. Human beings change and evolve and get into things and stuff happens and that’s going to change the playing too.
The communication only gets deeper and deeper and deeper because of that listening and knowing how to listen. It’s like you’re almost expecting a kind of response from a thing. It’s very interesting to me, but I think it kinda worked out how I figured it would work out. In some cases, it’s going way deeper than I thought was possible in the writing and everything.
AG: You have this most recent album. Can you tell us about it and what you’re working on now?
Max: Yeah, the most recent album came out at the end of 2015 called Bitter Human. It was released on a three-year-old Los Angeles-based record label called Orenda Records , which fosters this type of thing. Los Angeles artists, a lot of jazz fusiony stuff, a lot of experimental stuff, and all mostly friends of our. Well, all friends of ours. Not most. [Laughter.] Sorry.
Yeah, so we put it out on that. That stuff is kind of a compendium of tunes that we’ve written leading up in the band. Not necessarily written specifically for the band. Like Stefan said, there’s three pieces he wrote on that. I think I wrote seven pieces on that. And they’re from different stretches, from different periods in my compositional thing. But, we just recorded another album last year at the end of another tour and we’re working on mixing all that now. That stuff is all specifically written for this band.
Stefan: We played a lot of it last night.
AG: Okay. Yeah, I recognized a few tunes from your bandcamp page, but most of it was new to me. I was so thrilled. When is that album coming out?
Max: Hopefully summer. It depends on a few things falling into place.
Mike: Yeah, just trying to line up the mixing and mastering.
Max: Yeah, trying to figure out what to do with it. Lots of ideas. Not to get into the larger discussion of CDs, vinyl, streaming, all that. Trying to figure out ways we can do that. It’s a different batch from the first album, for sure. It’s a bit more through-composed whereas the first album was kind of molten and feels kind of primordial and looser and more free playing. But, yeah, that’s our recorded thing for now.
AG: And how long are you on tour now? This is your first? second date? You played in LA last night?
Mike: No, Arizona is our number one. Ichi ban.
Max: Yeah, we played Phoenix last night and we’re playing Santa Fe tonight. We’ll be out for ten or eleven days. Something like that. Going up to Minneapolis, then back through Chicago, and all the way home.
AG: Cool! Great! One thing I did want to ask about… And this is my total ignorance on the tuba. I noticed while you were soloing last night, you were primarily just using two fingers and getting so many notes. I know with a horn, there’s a lot with your embouchure. Can you clarify how it is you were able to do so much with just two fingers?
Stefan: I may be able to clarify, I may make it less clear. I’ll do my best. As you overblow through an overtone series, the notes get closer together and what that means is that there’s a new open note, a new open note, and those open notes get closer and closer so that by the time you get into what normally acculturated human ears are going to detect as a regular “middle of the piano” range of sound on the tuba, you’re already way up in the series.
French horn is like this also. It’s pitched much closer to the tuba than you’d thing looking at it. They play much higher in the series than trombones do. So, once you’re up there, you’ve got a lot of open notes just stacked up against each other and getting closer together. What the valves do is they add length, so they lower the note a little bit and a little bit and a little bit. And because the open notes are close together by that time, you don’t need anything but the first couple positions on the valves to get yourself down to the next open note.
AG: Okay, because playing the guitar, I was thinking it would be like only using three frets on the different strings, but the range you got and the note selection just between supposedly-three notes…
Stefan: The other part of that is there’s a lot of “wiggle and blow” in some of those intense tuba solos… [Laughter.]
Mike: You weren’t intentionally playing every single note?
Stefan: I was BS’ing some of the notes because when you’re so high up on the tuba, the notes are so close together, you can BS it and you can use your embouchure and your chops and get the notes you’re after. So, I don’t know if that makes it more or less clear. It’s a physics thing. You watch trombone players, you’ll see the same thing. When they’re up in the bebop-trombone-land, they’re up there and the slide hardly ever comes very far out.
AG: So, the frets get smaller, basically?
AG: Mike, do you play any other instruments?
Mike: Not proficiently enough to do in front of other people.
AG: You’d never guess because the compositions of yours from last night…
Mike: Just one. I’ve only written one for this band and it came after, like Stefan said he felt comfortable after a year and a tour, I felt comfortable after two years and two tours. And also being out of town, blah blah blah…
AG: That was not a simple or easy song. Not that I would expect it to be, but the stuff you wrote for the guitar and tuba were very complex.
Mike: I’ve been writing music since I started playing. On the computer a lot, but I compose primarily on the piano and going up through a master’s program in music, hopefully I’ve learned some sort of theory that I can actually work my way around.
Stefan: By the way, that tuba part is a good example of something where you look at it and technically it goes against what they’ll teach you in those orchestration classes. It’s not “idiomatic” or “playable,” but when you think artistically and conceptually and think, “Well if the tuba’s not good for this, we should toss it off the bridge and find something else.” It works.
Mike: And you’re an amazing tuba player so if you can’t play it, then yeah we should throw it off a bridge.
Stefan: I practice his parts a lot.
Max: Mike writes some really guitar-y guitar parts. From chugging chords to effect-laden feedback drone-y stuff. That’s in the chart. That’s not super common amongst the prior music or charts, so that’s pretty refreshing, especially chunking chordal stuff. Albeit, kinda funky chords. I had to re-tune for that tune. I don’t have to do that in any other tune.
AG: Yeah, I was thinking in his piece in particular, “I wonder if Mike plays guitar or tuba in particular” because some of what you were doing seemed very idiomatic. I knew you had re-tuned, but I wasn’t paying close attention.
Max: It wasn’t a super-out tuning. It was just drop-D. But it’s drop-D, not to get the D. It’s drop-D to get a voicing that would be impossible otherwise and it sounds really cool.
Stefan: Someone who taught at Cal Arts while we were there would always say that the way to learn about this was just to be around them and eventually start to intuit.
Mike: And having an ear.
Stefan: I have the Adler orchestration book at my fingertips at all times, but that’s like 5% of it. I struggle with strings and guitars specifically. Orchestra strings also because it’s just such a foreign way of thinking about things. I know how to write clusters on the guitar that you can mathematically calculate what’s possible and what’s not, but as far as coming up with something that’s got that “guitar-ness,” that’s a longer-term process. I don’t know if there’s a book I can read that…
Mike: Guitar Player Magazine ?
Stefan: There are books I could read, but I’m not going to.
AG: They’re called monthly issues. Anyway, the show was awesome. I saw Mike not reading in a lot of songs, but he was definitely reading in other songs, and you guys were reading almost the whole night. I had assumed he was making up his own parts for a lot the songs that you had written, but it’s awesome to see the way you guys communicate, you write for each other, and you write music that challenges each other. Mike, you’d even said, “Let’s do something hard,” which was so ironic because every song sounds impossible to play. Thanks so much for spending some time and sharing what you do. It really was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. It was really stunning. I can’t wait to see what happens in the future.
Band: Right on. Thanks.