Peon is the duo of Melbourne based percussionists Sam Price (Pattern Recognition Machines) and Ronny Feralla (IshIsh/ Mandala). They are both pretty amazing improvisational musicians, regularly collaborating with numerous others in all manner of configurations and genres. Peon is a long running project where the duo employ not just their percussive skills, but also other instrumentation such as electronics, ngoni, synths, voice and melodica. They’ve released five forward thinking uncategorizable albums and EP’s thus far, including Inter Alia that was co produced by and features contrabass from Lloyd Swanton (The Necks). They’ve just released their latest album The Fracture of Meaning and its possibly their most most fascinating and difficult to classify yet, which as you can imagine makes us want to know more. We spoke to them via email on the eve of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.
Cyclic Defrost: What is Peon? And where does it fit for you?
Sam: Peon is two drummers who improvise with technology. Also a labourer with little control over their employment conditions. Outside of my solo practice, it is my longest running project.
Cyclic Defrost: How did you two get together?
Ronny: We first met at a gig in which we were both booked for, in separate bands. One of us went home early. Talk about labourers with little control over their over their employment conditions!! From that initial encounter we both sensed there was a lot of common ground to explore. I was really interested in Sam’s approach to the electronic stuff and the way he was using it to influence the improvisational process.
Although the main connection at the earliest stage was jazz drumming. Nerds attract.
Sam: Ah, the early days! I was probably far more hopeful regarding human interaction with technology at that point, at least in its instrumental (rather than anthropological) manifestation.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you talk much about what you are doing? Were/ Are there any touchstones? How important is improvisation in the process?
Sam: We talk a lot but not so much about what we’re doing as that is the output. Our discussions tend to centre on the state of the world and work their way around to music. I think the main touchstone for us is the drum kit; a post-ragtime concoction that is simultaneously omnipresent but underrepresented in its untamed form. I would say we both have strong feelings about the importance of the drums and the primacy of improvisation as a direct expression of human experience.
Cyclic Defrost: How important is the instrumentation you choose. I’m hearing more bells on The ‘Fracture of Meaning’ for example. Do you two just come together with the tools you’ve been using for other projects or does Peon require something in particular?
Ronny: It is a bit of both but it’s more the tools that are currently being used in the practice as opposed to other projects. But Peon does also require that we are aware of each others’ “current” arsenal and through that, some kind of balance is achieved. By balance I don’t necessarily mean in range of colours, frequency etc.. more a balance between what we are both interested in at the time and a way for both those “conceptual arenas” to be brought together.
Sam: In terms of instrumentation, the drums are a constant but the electronic technology has changed profoundly with every recording we’ve done. From coding SuperCollider, playing synths with keyboards to foot controllers manipulating various processes, the changes have brought dynamism to our practice in that anything we set up has to accommodate the ‘four limb’ approach of drumming and provide sufficient flexibility to accompany / fuel the improvisation between us.
Cyclic Defrost: For a two drummer project you initially expect significantly more rhythms – or percussive interplay or maybe drummer gymnastics or something. What do you think has pushed you into more abstract and textural realms?
Ronny: We have in the past gone down the road of heavy rhythms, and attempted drummer gymnastics stuff, and that has been a feature of our live performances. The new recording didn’t feel abstract or more texture driven during the recording process, it is always rhythm of some sort driving the music. Perhaps we have become comfortable playing together and hearing each other where we don’t feel a need for the “grid” to always be there. This was a lockdown collaboration project so we were both in our heads, quite a way. Best not to think about this one too much.
Sam: Agree. A big part of Peon life is rapidly detecting deltas between sonic events. Whether such events are evenly spaced or not is a matter of aesthetic. I have long suspected that the second law of thermodynamics is the impetus in that regard; none of us getting any younger and things trend towards disorder.
Cyclic Defrost: Being based in Melbourne I’m just wondering to what extent lockdown played a part in the way The Fracture of Meaning was created?
Sam: Lockdown is why this record happened at all I guess. Ronny got in touch saying ‘let’s do something’ and we started swapping recordings. The initial idea was to capture raw emotion via the drums and go from there. It’s our first non-realtime recording. We’ve never dubbed anything previously. So, a different way of working but one we probably would not have chosen without the restrictions of lockdown #4.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you tell me about The Fracture of Meaning? To me it feels less weighed down by musical labels, much freer than your previous releases. Do you feel this? And if so was it a conscious decision?
Sam: I like the freedom of this record. I don’t really know how such a record can live in the world though. I mean, why capture freedom? And how does one approach listening to such a record? I think the increased use of non-electronic instrumentation unmoors the sonic referents from the usual (and for us, unintended) synthesis tropes in terms of timbre and gesture… get past the first track and it feels like there’s nary an LFO in sight! The name is inspired by Attali and I don’t know what he’d make of it but I like that this record is very connected to the body, it doesn’t sound like a machine.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve also got much longer pieces here, particularly the 17 minute ‘Going Backward to Go Forward’. What attracts you to these kinds of longer form pieces? Also I’m really interested in this tick tock element midway through it (a wood block or something) which feels like it both works against and with the kit. I’m just wondering how you approach working as a duo in moments such as these. (sorry not sure if any of this makes sense)
Ronny: Re the longer forms it just seems to take that long to get it out. Both Sam and I have grown up on a fairly healthy diet of pop music and I think that still influences our conception of the narrative or the way each piece lays itself out to the listener. By that I’m talking about how themes or ideas are introduced and then dealt with, resolved etc… during the improvisation. I would like be able to do it in a shorter time frame, but it doesn’t seem to happen. Also I really like long works, Morton Feldman a particular favourite. There is a point where as a listener you give up on trying to understand and just start listening to what is happening. I’m into that. The tick tock woodblock thing came from trying to take Sam’s 17 minute improvisation and to break it into three distinct sections. The tick tock defined one section. It’s a sound evokes the idea of time and steady rhythm, it was fun to play with those tropes.
When we play live it’s totally up to the individual if they want to engage with the other’s “suggestion” I could play really strict time and Sam can take it or leave it. We trust that we are always listening to each other and processing. Any action one of us takes helps to define what the other is doing.
Sam: I think Peon explores both minimal and maximal approaches to form, density and change-over-time in an improvised context. We’re not looking to make an archetype that then gets wheeled-out for the next tour or whatever, it’s all up for grabs now that we don’t have to fit our work on a cassette / vinyl format, surely?
Cyclic Defrost: I got on board with Inter Alia which was significantly more musical than The Fracture of Meaning. Can you tell me what you feel is the evolution of the project? Or maybe the question is what do you feel that you’ve learned from the project?
Sam: I feel that Peon develops in line with our personal interests and practices and that’s why it endures. As people and drummers of course we’re different but face the same battles of control towards instrumental expression. The drums are eternally demanding and you have to face into it every day. For me, this recording affirms my belief in the expressive power of the instrument in the context of Peon. And perhaps I should be more open to other ways of working (outside of real time improvisation) but there’s still so much more to do before one has to rely on technology to fill in the process gaps of making stuff. Perhaps when our hands give out we can start making ‘bangers’?
What do you think the future of Peon is?
Sam: We’ve talked about doing collabs with other artists and now feels like the right time, when that’s a thing again.. Spoken word/poetry and hard blowing horns would be good.
You can Find The Fracture of Meaning here.