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Never Scene It
Long Beach native Chris Schlarb is that rare local musician (composer and producer) who transcends scenes, sounds—even media. His Sounds Are Active label chronicled the LA/OC avant-noise scene with the 40 Bands in 80 Minutes DVD two years ago, while his solo project Twilight & Ghost Stories and free-jazz duo I Heart Lung sell out gigs in New York and receive shout-outs from National Public Radio. More recently, Schlarb scored the Swedish video game NightSky (sublimely) and recorded a Christmas album with his wife and two kids. This year, he’ll be producing a 7-inch with Mike Watt and members of the Widow Babies called Rare Grooves. His next gig, though, is arguably his most offbeat: lecturing Wednesday at Cal State Long Beach.
OC Weekly: How does a guy with his studio in his dining room wind up lecturing as a visiting composer?
Chris Schlarb: Well, I was invited to talk for an hour for their Composers’ Colloquium. The irony for me, of course, is that the only college I ever tried to get into told me I needed to take guitar lessons.
Well, let’s talk about that. You have a discography, which looking at it, appears as accomplished as it does pretentious—I mean, Ikey Owens, okay, but Wilco’s Nels Cline, some dudes from Philip Glass’ ensemble, Dirty Projectors. It’s so—Kronos Quartet-y.
I just want to work. I want to learn. I want to improve. If that means working with a young band and helping them arrange and produce a record or if that means spending a few days getting schooled by someone like Cooper-Moore, then that’s what I’ll do.
Cooper-Moore is a jazz musician and teacher in New York. In 2008, he put a U.S. tour together, and I contacted him right away about setting up a show in Long Beach. He wound up staying with my family for a few days and just taught me about music. We would walk around Long Beach, walk in 4/4 time, and count out subdivisions in perfect time with each other.
Do you have any formal training?
I started playing guitar when I was about 14 and ended up playing in the gospel choir at [David Starr] Jordan High School [in Long Beach]. I was playing with different gangsta rap groups and doing R&B gigs with the choir band. That’s how I learned to play music. Eventually, I helped start Create (!), and we’d improvise 45-minute sets playing free jazz, hip-hop, Michael Jackson covers, heavy metal, whatever.
Where do you see yourself fitting in (or not) with the Orange County scene? There’s a kind of willful obscurity to your career, but it’s pretty damn accomplished.
I never think about my place in the landscape. I just keep my head down and get my work done. I don’t create music in search of approval. I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about that, I think. Maybe that’s part of why I never went to college for music. Also, probably part of why I started my own label: No one could reject me.
So what are you going to talk about at this lecture?
I’m going to talk to them about doing instead of thinking. I know a lot of people who have their heads so filled up with theory that they can’t express themselves artistically. Sometimes you need to get out from behind the computer or the staff paper and just do something. Then do something else. Throw yourself into strange situations.
Like score a video game? How’d that come about?
Nifflas [Nicklas Nygren], the Swedish creator of the game, was a fan of Twilight & Ghost Stories.
So you kind of went into it as a quote-unquote composer?
Well, I did buy a keyboard just for it, but after working on all these different collaborative projects, I really stripped everything down. A lot of it is just guitar, very simple, very melodic. Lots of atmosphere. It might also be the best music I’ve ever written.
Chris Schlarb speaks as part of Cal State Long Beach’s Composers’ Colloquium, Building C402, CSULB, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-4781, www.csulb.edu/~music/comp_theo/colloquium.html. Wed., 3 p.m. Free and open to the public.