Toronto's Doc Dunn rounds up The Transcendental Rodeo
by Jesse Locke
December 9, 2015
The subterranean psych caravan clear out their vaults with the 'Kanata' box set.
Photo: Tom Beedham
Among many other things, Matthew “Doc” Dunn is the lead wrangler of The Transcendental Rodeo. This expanding head band sometimes numbering as high as 20 members draws in musicians from disparate corners of Toronto to create, in Doc’s words, a “communal hillbilly raga.” With players from projects as varied as Fleshtone Aura, Saffron Sect, and HVYWTR, they gather for free flowing improvisations that cosmically defy space, time, or place.
The Rodeo has now rounded up a clearing house of recordings for the long-threatened Kanata box set in an edition of 99 from Dunn’s own label Cosmic Range. The lavish collection includes a full length LP, two one-sided LPs, a 7″, a cassette, and a book that should leave a certain segment of record freaks fiending. If you’re reading this near Toronto, the group celebrates the box set’s release with a free show on Thursday, December 10th at Grasshopper Records.
Listen to a pair of mind-expanding samples from Kanata below and read on for an interview with the good Doctor.
AUX: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Transcendental Rodeo? The first release I’m aware of is a CD-R on Beniffer Editions from 2008. When did the gates first open and who was in the saddle?
Doc Dunn: The Rodeo ‘Genesis’ was primarily an offshoot and extension of my friendship and relationship with Andrew Zukerman (Fleshtone Aura) and our mutual affection and love for a multitude of esoterica, both old and new – Ethnic Folkways Library, Henry Flynt, Theatre of Eternal Music/Angus MacLise, Ocora Records, Tower Recordings, The Cherry Blossoms, etc. etc….
Our original intention was to collide these sounds with a kinda deranged spoken-word hillbilly art-damaged performance zone. Instead, we recruited a legion of friends and freaks (our first show was a quartet of myself, AZ, Mike ‘Muskox’ Smith and the legendary Marco Landini, opening for Randy and Mike Gagne’s Red Trakpants project…) to let our communal hillbilly raga ebb and flow with a rotating cast.
At the time of our first release Andrew was still an active member of the Beniffer Editions family, so that release was a perfect fit at the time. Also, I simply adore the work and ethic of label ‘boss’ Jacob Horwood, which I feel has been sadly under-heralded locally and nationally (except for Nick Storring’s compelling and thorough examination in MusicWorks recently). If Alga Marghen were putting out what he has over the last five years punters in Toronto would be losing their minds over the work… but I digress… ha!
Has the membership of the Rodeo shifted significantly over the years? Who are the consistent players and who has come and gone?
The Rodeo always had a rotating cast of players and collaborators. The only consistent in all permutations was myself and AZ. At one session membership topped 20 heads, which is both extremely fun and positively unwieldy (as documented on the Healing Power records release The Magic Garden/Le Jardin Magique). ‘Social Music’ (as classified by Harry Everett Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music) has always been a fundamental part of my musical work life, and the Rodeo was another extension of that ethic and mode.
My old friend Steve Kado (who is present on the Kanata box set) and I have been working within the idiom of group-think since we were in high school (there are tapes, and they’re insane… haha!). I feel that this element of music and art has been drowned out and abandoned in favour of authorship/commercial interests, false high-minded-ness and ego.
Anyway, to answer your question, the players were a mix of ACE musicians (Mike Smith, Derek ‘Grasshopper’ Madison, Gaven Dianda, Colin Fisher, Brandon Valdivia, Jay Anderson, Richard Gibson, Gabe Levine, James Anderson), heads (Marco Landini, Minesh Mandoda, Wolfgang Nessel, Evan Webber), art wranglers (Randy Gagne, Katherine Kline, Anna Silverstein) and REAL people, whose enthusiasm and ‘primitive’ skills can bring an entire other dimension to the sounds (Stuart Wiber, Laurel Waterman, Marc Tellez, Brian Tysoe, Sandra Iseman).
Every time I visit your house you play me snatches of different Rodeo recordings that often date back several years. Is it accurate to describe the box set as a vault clearer to tie up the loose ends of a few different eras? What’s included in there?
Yes. This is very much the beginning of the clearing of the vaults. The Rodeo ceased performing in 2011 (our last concert is presented here as side one of the cassette Frontier Love) and has been in a state of hibernation ever since. The era represented within the box is mostly from 2009, our most productive year, with a couple of live shows thrown in from 2010-2011. There is a full length LP, The Solar Eye and the Lunar Homestead, a 7″, Space Pioneer b/w Indian-Grove-&-Car-Park-Blues, two one-sided LPs, Alors, Allez au Ciel and Trancers, Too, a cassette, Frontier Love: Live in the Great White North and a book, designed and laid out by AZ.
I understand you’ve employed the overlapping artistic talents of Andrew Zukerman, Mike ‘Muskox’ Smith, Randy Gagne, Alicia Nauta, and Colour Code Printing on the packaging of this beautiful set. Can you describe the physical items and how it all came together?
The packaging and corraling of these pieces was quite an undertaking and it wouldn’t have happened without the involvement and effort of the crew mentioned above. I have always felt that it is imperative to present work in a fashion that offers both a dimensionality and depth that compliments and heightens the experience of the audio.
From Mike Smith’s efforts on the audio, Andrew’s artwork and layout (he is still prob my fave visual artist in town), Randy Gagne’s constant and consistent support and insight, to the immaculate printing work by Alicia Nauta (the one-sided LPs are screenprinted on the blank side and must be seen to be believed) and the Colour Code family (Jesjit Gill and Jenny Kapichen), it simply takes the work to a level I couldn’t have possibly envisioned. Which for me is the highest compliment I could pay them all. Also, the helping hands of Derek ‘Grasshopper’ Madison and Robert Doughty (The Leotard Geeks) were indispensable in this enterprise.
You’ve played a lot in the past with MV & EE as a member of their own rotating rodeo. How did you first link up with them, and what are some highlights of your time together?
Matt Valentine and Erika Elder are as fundamental to my music and art as water and air. Both as supporters of my work and as great, great friends. I couldn’t have been able to make a fraction of the sounds I have over the last 10 years without them. And will continue to make with them. Forever in their debt, frankly.
I first got to know them through mail ordering their Child of Microtones editions from them directly in the early-mid aughts. Met them in person for the first time at ‘Tonight Let’s All Make Love in Buffalo’ (Soundlab, 2005) and later at Terrastock 6 in Providence, Rhode Island… and its been love ever since!
Highlights are myriad – doing our own version of “Hard Rain” at Primavera Sound in Barcelona with full double band including Mick Flower/The Doozer/Samara Lubelski/Mascis/John ‘Mo’Low’ Moloney. Freestyling “Elephant Man of Pancakes” with MV and Chris ‘Crittle’ Davis on the streets of Aarhus for some seriously bewildered Euro-art-kids. The entire Barn Nova sessions and tour, with Justin Pizzoferato, Jeremy Earl, ‘Muskox’, Sunburned, J. Four days of R&R at Volcanic Tongue. Hanging at Biquiteen studios, being dwarfed by GIANT purple drums. MV fingerpicking Skip James’ “Crow Jane” late night at Maximum Arousal Farm, freezing time and altering my conception of the ‘NOW’ forever. Laughing ourselves sick in the van with Flower/Corsano/Moloney. And just getting to become part of the world created by the minds behind Tower Recordings is still a ‘pinch myself’ feeling… I could go on and on and on and on and on…
Back in 2006, you organized a large scale local event called the Bummer in the Summer that brought a lot of different people together. Now that it’s coming up on a decade later, how do do you feel about the current state of music in Toronto? What’s working and what’s lacking?
The Bummer in the Summer was a reflection of mine and Wolfgang Nessel’s love and admiration for our local friends and artists and our best attempt to provide a forum for the disparate communities of creative musicians who are (still) marginalized in this city. Credit also has to go to Marco Landini, Iris Fraser-Gudrunas, Aaron Lumley and Kevin Hainey for all their efforts and insights at the time.
On reflection, I feel like little has changed for the better, and that is extremely troubling. What is working – David Dacks at the Music Gallery, truly a Godsend; Tad Michalak being righteous; Dan Burke continuing to LOVE music; lots of new, good record shops (Grasshopper Records, June Records etc. etc.), lifelong artists continuing to grow and make key work (i.e. Jennifer Castle, Ryan Driver, Carl Didur, Isla Craig, etc. etc.). The most vital and impressive music, art, and organizing over the last number of years is being done by female artists, which from my optics is the single most important change on the scene as a whole. A full matrilineal shift can bring nothing but positivity and expansiveness to our community, and I for one hope this continues unabated.
What is lacking – RESPECT for lifelong artists; too many people thinking ‘anyone can do it’ (they can’t, without devotion and discipline), and being driven by blind ambition; organizations that actually cater to artists needs rather than their own self-serving, ego driven notions of how art and music promotion and production reflect their ‘brand’… ugh… venues that actually remunerate musicians for their efforts, rather than either falling into a ‘faux-cialist’, false egalitarian-ism or a more cutthroat, ‘smiler with a knife’ form of late market capitalism masquerading as cultural arbiters; without a consistent income stream art and music scenes dry up… and thats a fact, Jack!… Ha!
That being said, in all my travels I have never seen a better, brighter, deeper community of creators anywhere, period. I love Toronto, it’s my hometown, and I just hope we can appreciate, foster, and harvest it before it’s too late and we all have to move, due to economics, demography or the cultural pressures outlined above.
These days you’ve been keeping a pretty low profile while toiling away on a ton of different projects in your basement studio. One of the things I’m most excited about is your album of love songs. What else can people look forward to next?
My low profile of late has been both a pragmatic and necessary byproduct of many of the situations listed above. Also, my personal life kinda ended up in the ditch the last few years, which contributed greatly to my hideout mode. I’ve been focusing largely on my painting and photography of late, but hopefully this box set is the beginning of a new phase of productivity.
On the horizon for 2016 is a duo LP with my old friend and collaborator Andy Haas (Martha and the Muffins, John Zorn, Zeena Parkins); the Sacred Lamp LP that my best pal Ayal Senior and I just wrapped up (its a doozy and I’m especially proud of this one); the ‘love songs’ solo LP you referenced, Matt, The Wolfking of T.O.; and a double LP on Idee Fixe of sessions recorded by master engineer/producer Jeff McMurrich with my new ‘space-jazz’ ensemble featuring my dream players: Kieran Adams, Jonathan Adjemian, Isla Craig, Andy Haas, Mike ‘Muskox’ Smith, Max ‘Slim Twig’ Turnbull, and Brandon Valdivia.
Music is the ultimate blessing and I just wanna keep as busy as possible and hopefully bring some light and inspiration to those who are there to listen. Peace and vibes.