Monday, September 1, 2014

Exclusive Complete Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Michael D. Anderson and Irwin Chusid, September 2013

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive (CE): Irwin, thanks for taking time to speak with us—we’re honored. 

As many Sun Ra fans know by now, you and Michael Anderson, in cooperation with Sun Ra LLC (Sun Ra’s heirs), recently released the first batch of over 20 Sun Ra “Mastered for iTunes” reissues

On behalf of Arkestra fans everywhere, I’d like to thank you and the team for your excellent preservation work; not only giving long-time fans what are in my opinion, the best sonic versions of these releases to date, but working to raise Sun Ra’s public visibility and expose the next generation to his band’s great legacy of music.

You have a long career as landmark preservationist, broadcaster, and champion of Outsider and lesser-known artists, such as Jim Flora, Raymond Scott, Esquivel, R. Stevie Moore, The Langley Schools Music Project, and Shooby Taylor ("The Human Horn"). In the case of Esquivel, your reissues were primarily responsible for exposing a new generation to his music in a high-profile way. I’m thankful and excited that you’re on the Sun Ra case now!

How did you come to Sun Ra’s music and partner with Michael D. Anderson and Sun Ra LLC?

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC (IC): I had a casual familiarity with Sun Ra, but had never taken time to fathom his variety and vastness. Like many latecomers, my awareness increased with the ground-breaking Evidence reissues of the 1990s. I was struck by the stylistic disconnect between accessible, if idiosyncratic finger-snapping jazz and experimental works that could fracture granite. Sometimes on the same album

Michael and I have been buds for over 20 years, but besides having him occasionally appear as a guest on my WFMU radio show, I barely scratched the surface of his Sun Ra archiving. In fall 2013 he lamented that he needed professional management—well, he wanted me to manage—so I agreed, with little idea where it would lead or what I was getting myself into. He put me in touch with Thomas Jenkins, Jr., managing director of Sun Ra LLC—he’s the son of Herman Poole Blount’s (now deceased) sister Mary, who lawfully inherited the estate. Jenkins has fed me a steady stream of documents going back 23 years. The more I studied the business around Ra’s music—specifically the commercial exploitation and legal squabbles—the more it seemed a lawless frontier in need of a sheriff. We’re talking bootleggers, con artists, bogus claimants, releases of dubious legitimacy, unpaid royalties, expired or missing licenses, conflicting claims of ownership, and legal chicanery. In some cases, one man seemed guilty on four counts, another on three. Some of these disputes were settled in the 1990s, others remain unresolved. Turf wars around the monuments of a genius. 

Had I known this when I first offered to help Michael, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m not by nature drawn to chaos. Anarchy applied to music can yield interesting art. Applied to the music business, you get infringement, theft, bad faith, legal bills, and lost sleep. Of course, there were fans, scholars, honest merchants, preservationists, reputable indie labels, and collectors, all immersed in one man’s glorious creative expression. But most did not know the full extent of the unscrupulousness infecting the business side. 

Eventually Jenkins and I came to terms and he appointed me exclusive administrator to oversee the business. So—new sheriff in town. My task list grows daily. With a legacy as sprawling as Sun Ra’s, there are new complications at every turn. But there are benefits: part of my job is to listen to Sun Ra music.

CE: From the perspective of Outsider art, you really couldn’t have chosen a figure more “outside” than Sun Ra. From your perspective as an expert on Outsider art, where do think Sun Ra’s place and role is in that lineage?

IC: As with the most significant outsider artists, Sun Ra is sui generis. He has the one quality you can’t fake: identity. He didn’t blaze a path for other musicians, because no one could replicate his intuitive gifts, his eccentricities, his style. There may be other artists you’d “like” if you “like” Sun Ra, but there is no one LIKE Sun Ra. You, Christopher, once referred to Sunny’s legacy as a “deep, creative well.” Richard Segan said that “Sun Ra is the most advanced musician we have ever had on this planet.” I can’t speak in absolutes, but his catalog spans the spectrum and defies simple distillation. It’s challenging to absorb everything. I’ve occasionally joked that “with Sun Ra’s music, there’s something for everyone to hate.” In the whole of his recorded output, you get everything but consistency and predictability. There’s sweet melodies you could play at wedding receptions, and confrontational noise-art that could spark fisticuffs. He covers Gershwin with panache, then brutally assaults his keyboard. No wonder Terry Adams is a fan.

CE: The history of Sun Ra, Alton Abraham and Saturn Research’s business dealings is a long a convoluted one, with an endless trail of agreements, infringements, and disarray. It appears that many of these problems persist. How do you intend to “organize the organization”? 

IC: I undertook representation of Sun Ra LLC—the heirs who lawfully own the recordings and publishing (Enterplanetary Koncepts, a BMI company)—in December 2013, but it was not a management or administrative position per se. It provided me with authority to make inquiries, request documents, and challenge alleged malefactors. In late July 2014, we formalized the arrangement with a more detailed agreement that expands my authorities and makes me the de facto administrator. 

One of the first things I did early on was to forge an alliance between the LLC as rights owners and Michael, who has custody of countless archival session tapes. The LLC owns the rights—I’ve conclusively established chain-of-title from Sun Ra’s death thru several intra-family transfers of his assets, but always with the same principals. There were legal, financial, and geographic reasons why the assets went from conservatorship to estate, to Alabama-based ‘S’ corporation, and finally to Georgia-based LLC. There are no gaps. 

Michael, who played drums for Sun Ra and lived at Saturn House during the 1970s, was Sun Ra’s designated tape librarian. Michael has devoted his life to the safekeeping of those reels and the historic sounds embedded on magnetic plastic film. He’s compiled a meticulous database of what’s on the tapes. He’s very protective of this collection and has a spiritual connection to the music. He doesn’t have a “job”—he has a commitment. There’s no way this material could be commercially developed without Michael’s involvement. He is irreplaceable because he doesn’t just know the music and the contents of tapes—he knows the history of Sun Ra and the various members of the Arkestra. He can put everything in context, including people who have been involved with the catalog over the years but aren’t directly connected to Sun Ra or the Arkestra. Some of this history is documented on paper, some is in his computers, and a lot of it is in his head. I love Michael for who he is and what he does. But I worry about him—his health, his moodswings, his ability to pay the rent. He has become extremely reclusive. 

There has long been a tacit understanding between the family and Michael, each acknowledging the other’s involvement and role, neither interfering with the other, but with little communication and no coordinated effort to run a business. It was obvious to me that these two sides were dependent on each other, and each had an essential role. Business and art. When ownership rights are disrespected or threatened from outside, both sides need to cooperate to protect the realm. Hence, the new alliance. We now have a team with coordinated goals. 

And just to clarify one common misunderstanding: there is no “Sun Ra estate.” There was, but it was closed in 1999 and the executrix, Marie Holston (a niece), was discharged. The estate was replaced by Sun Ra, Inc., with Jenkins as managing director. That ‘S’ corporation was dissolved in 2005 and replaced by Sun Ra LLC, again with Jenkins in charge. Same family principals in each case, with heirs replacing decedents.

Alton Abraham tried twice in court during the 1990s to claim administrative rights over the estate. However, he couldn’t produce a single document proving an active business partnership with Sun Ra at the time of the latter’s death. Judicial decrees were issued denying his claims. That said, anyone who knows the history of Sun Ra acknowledges that without Alton Abraham, the world might never have known about Sun Ra, whose career might not have progressed beyond the strip clubs of Calumet City. They, too, were a team, dependent on each other, with complementary skills. But strong personalities often clash. They went thru a nasty professional divorce, and Sunny ended up owning the store. It was, after all, his music.

CE: The story of the Sun Ra’s master tapes is almost mythological. They were recorded in a large variety of manners—from professional studio dates to live and rehearsal recordings. There are stories of master tapes and copies of tapes spread across the world in chaos. Michael Anderson was Sun Ra’s self-appointed archivist shortly after he joined the band in the late 1970s, and I know he has spent years trying to bring order and honor to the chaos. What can you tell us about the official archive and the physical state and breadth of the collection?

IC: With due deference to Michael, the status of the tapes is a topic I would prefer that he address publicly — if he’s inclined. I’d simply say that, considering the difficult life circumstances and severe financial strain he faces on a daily basis, Michael is doing the best he can. He works constantly. He needs an assistant, but can’t afford to pay one. He has had offers from academic settings and professional archives who are willing to accept custody of the tapes. But to Michael, this is unacceptable because he would lose immediate access to the reels and relinquish control of the collection. He has ambitious plans, but no capital to pursue them. 

We do have an agreement in place that if anything happens to Michael, I can take legal possession of the tapes and hold them for safekeeping. My impulse would be to get those tapes into a professional, non-profit archive, knowing that the inherent rights in the recordings and compositions would be retained by Sun Ra LLC. 

CE: While working with the master tapes for the 24-bit transfers made for the new Sun Ra Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) Reissue Series, what can you tell us about the tapes themselves? What is their physical condition, and did they need baking before transfer? Are there any unique details about how the tapes are compiled, edited, mastered, and labeled?

IC: Over the years Michael has had to replace most of the original crumbling cardboard boxes and cracked plastic reels, documenting whatever was written on the physical artifacts. In general the collection looks clean and organized.

Again, for greater detail this is a question that should be addressed to Michael. I don’t deal with the reels at all. When I’m at his place, browsing the boxes on the shelves, I marvel at the names and titles on the spines. There’s a lot more than Sun Ra in his archive. 

I do know that Michael has never baked a tape. But he makes a mean chicken stew.

CE: What is your working process with Michael Anderson and how are you approaching the remastering? What are each of your unique perspectives and roles in regards to what you are listening for and trying to achieve sonically? Also what is your signal chain? How are you transferring the tapes and what tools are you using?

IC: I can’t speak for Michael. I hope he consents to being interviewed about the process. 

Michael produces the transfers from source tapes. He has a battery of vintage open-reel decks with various head configurations and speeds, and he knows how to service them. I honestly don’t know what adjustments he makes to the digital files. He works alone, he’s been doing this for decades, and I’m not going to second-guess his methodology. He sends me his processed wav files, and I undertake a meticulous restoration pass. He focuses on macro, I delve into the micro. I remove transients, occasionally boost midrange or high-end a smidge, reduce noise in selected passages, shave hiss, squelch distortion, de-ess, correct momentary speed irregularities, repair dropouts, balance volume disparities, and remove spikes that will sound like vinyl clicks in the end product. This process can take hours for one track because I’m a perfectionist—which with Sun Ra recordings is a fool’s errand. They can’t be perfected. You don’t want them perfect. Making them “perfect” would strip away layers of soul. You’ve heard of “garage rock”? This is Garage Jazz.

I’ve been doing digital restoration for ten years but confess that I don’t have sophisticated ears. I’ve never owned a high-end audio system. I own cheap consumer speakers, which I rarely upgrade. My bedroom has a pair of Lafayette speakers I purchased in 1969, just out of high school. Lafayette went out of business in 1981. These speakers sound fine, but I don’t crank them because it would disturb the neighbors. Connected to my iMac, on which I do audio restoration in Adobe CS5.5, I have a pair of desktop Bose Companion 2 Series II multimedia speakers. (I had to flip one over to find the model. Fancy gear doesn’t interest me — I just want my toys to work.) I have never taken an engineering course, don’t read audiophile magazines, don’t follow trends in acoustic advances, have never attended an audio convention. As Raymond Scott once claimed about himself, I have a degree in “primitive engineering.” You could say there’s a component of voodoo in my approach, but it seems to work for restoring Sun Ra’s recordings, and it’s worked for any number of previous restoration projects, particularly a lot of vintage calypso. This lack of technical expertise notwithstanding, I’m friends with numerous engineers, and often turn to them for problem-solving. I’m the beneficiary of their sound education.

I’m not trying to horrify prospective—and skeptical—buyers. I labor exhaustively over these audio files. There’s much trial and error. Some fixes sound fake. I reject those. There’s usually a trade-off: filter out one flaw, you inadvertently filter out part of the signal you’d prefer to keep. It’s a balancing act. But in some senses, the quality of my work is best judged by what you don’t hear.

I have not used compression or reverb on any track. I want something that to my ears sounds natural, that reflects the soulful-but-not-always-optimum settings in which these performances were captured. These recordings were not made in a Miles Davis studio with a Dave Brubeck budget. 

My expectation is that I will please people like me—ordinary Joes and Josies who just love the music—and disappoint audiophiles. But that’s a small minority of Sun Ra fans, and pleasing the high-end crowd is above my pay grade. If we do please them, I feel lucky—but that might have more to do with Michael’s initial transfer process.

CE: Well Irwin, as one of those picky audiophiles, who's never bought an album from iTunes because I want the highest quality sound possible, I can tell you that your work holds up to scrutiny and didn't disappoint me at all. I did extensive a-b testing between your new MFiT remasters and all of the previous issues of the music—from Saturn, Impulse!, Evidence, Scorpio LP reissues, etc.—and I can say the across the board, your new remasters are the best quality versions of the music released to date. There is a natural tone and acoustic realism to the new remasters that has rarely been heard from previous Sun Ra releases, many of which utilized multi-generation tapes, excessive EQ, or noise reduction to "clean up" the recordings. The end product was music that sounded distant and flat, while the new remasters sound almost three dimensional in comparison! It's a pretty stunning difference for a fan like myself who has heard these albums many, many times. I applaud you for the musical, tasteful choices you and Michael made when approaching your remastering work. For anyone interested in learning more about what Mastered For iTunes really means, here's a great primer.

Now that you and Michael have partnered with Sun Ra’s legal heirs, Sun Ra LLC, what are your goals moving forward?

IC: Here’s a short task list, minus details because these are essentially speculative, unconfirmed, subject to change, and contingent on the cooperation of other people.

We’ve received a half-dozen offers from labels eager to release Sun Ra on LP and CD. The best offer we received was from a reputable distributor who proposes to help us set up our own label. The distro rep is a longtime friend of mine and Michael, and he’s a Sun Ra fan. But so far, nothing logistical has been finalized.

We’ll continue to fill out the Mastered for iTunes catalog, which currently has 25 full-length releases, as well as 9 samplers. We’ve also reissued a handful of albums from pristine vinyl because we don’t have tapes. (The vinyl sourced-albums are not graded MFiT.) We granted Apple limited exclusivity on the 2014 remasters because they initiated the program and gave us terrific editorial support. On January 1, 2015, the entire catalog will be released thru all other digital retailers, although they will not feature Apple’s high quality AAC+ 24-bit format—they’ll be mp3s—and they won’t have the downloadable pdf booklets.

I’m also striving to throw the bootleggers out of the temple. Efforts ongoing, as well as cleaning up the foreign sub-publishing, which is a mess thanks to … well, let’s just say someone not connected to Sun Ra, to the family, or to Michael.

And finally, we plan the imminent launch of

CE: There has never been an official How did that come about?

IC: The domain was purchased by a fellow on the west coast in 1992. He’s a devoted fan of Sun Ra, saw him perform in the 1970s, and he thought it would be a cool domain name to own. This was in the early days of the web, when most people had no clue about the value of domain names and they were relatively easy to acquire. This gent had no intention of preventing its legitimate use by anyone connected to Sun Ra and he didn’t buy it to sell it later at a profit. He intended to set up a Sun Ra website, but never got around to it. I discovered his name and contact info and reached out. When I explained we wanted it for the family business, he immediately offered to transfer it—at no cost. That was an act of boundless generosity. He is thanked on the website, we’re giving him a free ad for his Mac business, and we’ve let him retain a half-dozen email addresses. We also gave him free downloads of the entire Mastered for iTunes series, and he’s going to get free Sun Ra merchandise—whatever we produce—for life.

CE: There have been many issues of this material over the years, from the original Saturn LP’s, ESP Records, the ABC/Impulse reissues in the early 1970s, the music’s first appearance on CD via Evidence Records in the early 1990s, to the endless releases, both legit and bootleg, since Sun Ra’s earthly departure—most notably, El Ra Records, Art Yard and Atavistic (legit) to Scorpio’s 180 gram LPs, Transparency, and Universe (grey or black market releases).

What is your team’s unique aesthetic approach to remastering these tapes and what kind of sonic qualities are you hoping to achieve from an audio perspective? From working with Michael and the tapes, do you think Sun Ra had a clear sonic aesthetic as to what he wanted his records to sound like as a body of work? I’m especially curious about your approach to the remasters in regard to current mastering trends—known as “The Loudness Wars”—where hard limiting and excessive compression are utilized to make the loudest files, which as a result are often harsh and fatiguing to listen to.

IC: As to whether Sun Ra had a clear sonic aesthetic about his records, it would be presumptuous of me to hazard a guess. As I said before, with Sun Ra you get everything but consistency and predictability. Clearly he was curious about technological advances in sound generation and recording, but his approach seems intuitive, not technical. I’d imagine he was the sort of guy who’d buy a new piece of equipment, open the box, ignore the instruction manual, and just start messing around. Or perhaps I’m projecting.

Sonically his records are a colossal crap-shoot, especially pre-1975 releases. Some sound great. Everything he did with Tom Wilson for Transition and Savoy is crisp, full of dimension. On the other hand, parts of Universe in Blue sound like a 3rd-gen Velvet Underground audience cassette. The Choreographer’s Workshop recordings are raw, flawed, gritty—but they work if you don’t mind low-fi. I grew up listening to 45 rpm singles in the ‘60s, and many of the coolest were mixed down to the point where nuance was minimal, but still they made your ears tingle. Some had a massive wall of sound, others just a flimsy barrier of sheetrock. The CW tracks have that quality, like they were using Joe Meek’s soundboard. I assume they had few mics at Choreographer’s Workshop—perhaps just two—which creates a natural compression. For that reason alone, you don’t need to add compression. The room took care of that.

Regarding the Loudness Wars, I do the Sun Ra restorations at low to moderate volume. If necessary I go under headphones to detect and remove buried transients. Volume is overrated. We’ve all been to clubs where the decibels are pumped during DJ sets and it all sounds like shit. I guess these DJs don’t really care about music because they assume louder is better. I’ve analyzed the waveforms of contemporary commercial recordings and I’m shocked at the lack of headroom, the extreme saturation of the spectrum. It’s the musical equivalent of fast food—packed with sugar, processed starch, and saturated fat. Everyone wants to outgun the Foo Fighters.

That can’t work for Sun Ra. It shouldn’t work for most music, period. But it’s a noisy world and labels compete for attention by trying to be heard above the din. A lot of recording artists could establish a more intimate connection with their fans by turning it down a notch. I remember first hearing Norah Jones and getting it immediately: she’s the anti-diva—all restraint, nothing forced, no need to shout. And she got heard.

Raymond Scott once said that he preferred to mix at low volume. In the late ‘70s I lived in a house with friends who went to bed earlier than I did. At the time I was a big fan of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and discovered that late at night I could play the LP at low volume and the sound was almost tactile. My assumption is that most consumers who listen to Sun Ra don’t crank it to Spinal Tap magnitude. I want it to sound good at comfortable volume, not breaching the Richter scale. Anyone who jams a Choreographer’s Workshop recording to 11 is likely to be disappointed.

CE: From the initial batch of Sun Ra reissues that are available from the iTunes Store, what are the top five that you would suggest to newcomers, or a classic jazz aficionado that hasn’t explored his music yet? On the flip side, what are the five titles you would suggest to a seasoned expert, as far a sound quality improvements, new mixes and rarities?

IC: Bear in mind that we’ve only restored selected albums between 1956 and 1972, so any recommendations from our catalog are older releases.

For jazz buffs, these are essential:

Jazz in Silhouette (with previous unreleased stereo mixes)

For seasoned fans:

Continuation Vol. 2: All tracks had first been released a few years ago on a limited run CD by Corbett vs. Dempsey, but the tracks on the CD contained numerous flaws, which have been fixed on the digital release.

Monorails and Satellites, Vol. 2: Very rare 1966 solo piano LP, which has not been previously reissued in any format.

Secrets of the Sun: Several bonus tracks and a significant sound upgrade from the Atavistic CD. We omitted the 17-minute Atavistic bonus track, “Flight to Mars,” because the tape wavers throughout the entire performance and cannot be repaired. I have no idea why anyone would release this track before a miracle plug-in is introduced which can normalize wavering pitch. 

Universe in Blue: Another very rare live LP ca. 1970 which had not previously been reissued in any format. 

And though it’s not a Mastered for iTunes reissue, I highly recommend The Other Side of the Sun. Recorded in 1978-79, it reminds me of a slightly higher fidelity Choreographer’s Workshop session. It’s accessible and soulful.

CE: On behalf of us Sun Ra fans everywhere, I’d like to thank you and your team again for your excellent and admirable work. We look forward to hearing and enjoying the fruits of your labor in the future, wish you the greatest success, and look forward to talking to you again.

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Unknown said...

Greetings, It seems Sun RA being a pioneer for Independent artist without a record deal, before James Brown and it's pioneers are never respected financially suffer hugely for their ART, my best wishes to Michael & SUN RA LLC, for taking on this fight. This needs to be supported. I have been trying to find this Interview that June Tyson done on her involvement with Sun Ra & Arkestra for almost 3 years. however it has disappeared. I have everything on Sun Ra musically and some rare Interviews I been searching high and low would gladly give you a list of what I have and hopefully add to your legacy archive

Arf Arf said...

Terrific article and glad to hear Irwin is at the helm of preservation. Glad to hear there is forward movement with this behemoth body of important work.

wrayb said...

Interesting interview, Now many of the Sun Ra issues are available via their bandcamp account: