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Alex Moskos Discusses Drainolith, "SEF III," Science Fiction & More | Feature Interview

by Jordan Reyes (@jpreyes90)

As befits the man who has been both the guitarist of cut-up noise rock band AIDS Wolf and a soothing voice on McGill University’s CKUT, Alex Moskos’ output is as varied as his roving curiosity. 2015 saw both his lauded Drainolith LP Hysteria from NNA Tapes as well as an extremely limited (100 copies) LP of quieter piano musings - Military Terms on Pleasance Records.

On his most recent musical venture, SEF III, an LP credited to Moskos, Max Eilbacher of Horse Lords, and Duncan Moore of Headband, the full-length begins with Moskos’ steady, pacifying voice reporting on an instance of sedentary activity hijacked by “not yet visible” harlequins - he relays the unfortunate reality that as the clowns grow more solid, you will become less present. If this sounds absurd, but comically engrossing, that’s because it is. The record, a product of time spent together as the full Drainolith band of 2015, and a myopic studio session in Montreal, is a hyper-composed time capsule grounded in jazz, hip hop, spoken word, and musique concrete.

To friends and acquaintances, however, Moskos’ music is only a part of the story, albeit a big part of it. Ask him about Canadian biker gangs, Raymond Chandler, or any number of seemingly disparate topics and he’s a wealth of knowledge. A talented and interesting person if there ever were one, Moskos is a joy to converse with, and it’s a delight to present this interview with him.

Jordan Reyes: Let's talk about the year book club that Byron Coley mentions in the Military Terms liner notes. How many year books are we talking about that you guys have collected?

Alex Moskos: It's not my collection - it’s Byron's. I played a gig with John Elliot in Northampton about 5 years ago. The next day we went to see Byron at the Yod shop. It was still in the old spot. I mostly looked through books you know, but Byron took us into this backroom, which was just full of yearbooks. He collects them. I think they are all from the same year. At the time it seemed like an odd thing to collect and we were blown away. Now when I think about it, it is interesting. These weird documents, as he mentions in the liners to Military Terms, of strange clubs and events.

JR: It is interesting. I was kind of amazed as I read the notes since there's such specificity, but then I started thinking about all the schools that could add to it. Do you have any collections? Anything you're particularly proud of?

AM: Records and books. I collected weird stuffed animals for a while. I had to stop because I was creeping out the crew. I collect some hockey memorabilia. I used to collect fisher price happy jingle apples. I had two big fruit boxes full. Just a jangling-ass squad. I got rid of those too. I collect certain Fire King mugs still. Been through sets and sets of those over the years.

JR: Did you ever use the happy apples when you were recording music? Those are the ones with the little bells inside, right?

AM: Yeah, those are the ones. I think there's a tine in them and a marble or something.  But yeah, I’ve not really jammed with one. They sound lovely though. My new neighborhood has a huge old church and whoever plays the carillon is like, either in training, so old, or just out of it. It's totally out of tune and in free time. Just church bell hell ringing out. Sometimes for hours. Plus one of the bells is waaay out of tune so it's really atonal. Best community wide jams for sure.

JR: Speaking of community, and having never been to Montreal or Québec, do you think there's a certain pride to being somewhere especially different than the surrounding states or areas? Do you think that adds to even communal music experiences?

AM: Yeah, I think so. It creates an insular feeling. The cultural-linguistic divide, no matter what you think of it, makes Montreal different from pretty much anywhere else in Canada. It also creates a kind of filter. People come and can't hang with limited French so they leave. Similarly people come from Western Canada and can't deal with the brutal winter and they leave. But generally, yes, we are proud of how weirdly unique our town is.

JR: I remember seeing you play at Berserktown and introducing a song as an Akitsa song. Few people would think to cover a black metal artist like that. But Pierre-Marc Tremblay is from Montreal too, right? Is there overlap indicative of the community as a whole?

AM: It actually wasn't an Akitsa song. That's a joke. I make that joke a lot because Akitsa is a household name a lot places outside of Quebec, which amazes me. Especially when there's a lot of black clad noise/metal dudes in the crowd and I'm about to play the Canadian blues. There's no crossover really, at all. Akitsa never plays. Pierre-Marc turns up at the record store I go to. That's it.

JR: So what were some of your formative experiences with Blues?

AM: My mom had blues records and I loved them. I it. When I got a guitar, I was taking guitar lessons and I learned some Robert Johnson tunes, some scales, 12 bars in E, etc. That's that. I never unlearned.

JR: I know people always talk about Blues being something from the United States, but there's obviously always been a big (almost fluid) cultural exchange between the US and Canada. Is there a pretty extensive history of the blues in Canada?

AM: Nah, not documented, at least. Ever hear of the Jeff Healey Band? You're lucky. That's the Canadian blues. Everything comes across the border. Everything. We send Mike Myers and Gordy Howe. We get John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed.

JR: Switching gears a bit - let's talk about the new Eilbacher/Moskos/Moore LP. How did this collaboration come about? Had you guys been planning it for a while?

AM: Max and Duncan were in the Drainolith band for the US leg of the Hysteria tour. While we were rehearsing in Baltimore they had a gig. They invited me to sit in. We did a piece Duncan had, which was "I am sitting in a room". We thought it was popping so in July 2015 Duncan and Max came up to Montreal and we cut it in my studio. I think it goes well with the piano record since it has a similar sparse vibe.

JR: So aside from the piece you mention, "I am sitting in a room," did you guys compose together on the tour?

AM: No - we wrote a lot of it in Montreal. The tour was just us playing Draino songs. A lot of the spoken texts on the record were things I had already written and we composed the music together in the studio. 

JR: Great segue! I really wanted to talk about your lyrics and the importance of both the spoken and written word in your life. First off, tell me a bit about your time doing radio - do you think it has impacted the way you write or deliver your words?

AM: I started doing radio at 16. My friend Damien and I lied our way into doing a show on the local university station. told them we were college aged. We did some really stupid shit but we played good music. We were on right after Tom Green's show. He did a call in show. We used to come in hang out while he did his show and he'd tell us about all the newest rap singles. When I graduated, I got a job as one of the music coordinators at CKUT radio McGill and did A LOT of radio for a few years. I used that experience to get into voice acting and recording books on tape. Just learning to be present on the microphone, enunciate properly, to talk into a mic without causing sibilance.

JR: How did you get first into science fiction?

AM: Well probably Star Wars was my introduction. But my father was into science fiction as were his two sisters. He had a small collection of Arthur C. Clarke or Asimov type stuff which I checked out, but it was beyond me. My dad took me to a rep house to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was young. He bought Neuromancer in the early 90s and passed it on to me which I read. I was impressed by it even though I was kind of too unformed mentally at that point to really grasp it. I read it again later and got it properly. Then, of course, there was the video game culture of the eighties and early nineties, which I was very much immersed in. There was so much Sci-Fi conceptualism in that stuff. My Dad had Zork, which is like this old text-based fantasy computer game, and then Space Quest. These were things my brother and I were really into. 

JR: 2001's my favorite movie ever btw. Do you think science fiction imparted any specific beliefs to you or affected how you saw reality? Neuromancer and Snow Crash and everything Philip K. Dick touched were massive influences on me.

AM: Yeah 2001 is a masterpiece. Science Fiction didn't ask me to question reality until later when I started reading Dick or the cyberpunks, the hipper things. Initially it imparted to me an appreciation of imagination and the ability of the human mind to think ahead - to project. Mostly it taught me that through imagination you can think through problems; the imagination is tool that frees us from the constraints of reality to think through important problems as well as reimagine ourselves, an important tool for bettering ourselves. In Sci-Fi they call it world building; you literally build a world through language.   

The interesting thing about Dick or Burroughs and the other cyberpunks was how much their work was nestled in the collective reality we all inhabit and are forced to deal with. It stays very current. It's so much more familiar to us than say Asimov or Le Guin.

There's been a resurgence of popularity in Sci-Fi recently and I think that in queer or transgender communities there is a real interest in world building and imaginative politics. Science Fiction provides some very classy and artful examples of this that can be learned from and borrowed from. And of music too. Which is most important to me. 

JR: So I take it there's a world building element to your music too, then?

AM: Absolutely there is. That's the whole project: building worlds of sound. Star Wars you're in George Lucas' world. The Handmaid's Tale you're in Margaret Atwood's. Drainolith you're in mine. SEF III you're in Duncan, Max and mine's. 

JR: Strangely enough, I just picked up a copy of Handmaid's Tale. I have 3 books before that one's up, but I'm eager to read it. Am I remembering correctly that you have a novel you're putting out soon, too? What's the story with that?

AM: I'm working on a novel. It weaves two stories together from three different time periods. 1813 and 1991 and 2011.  They all happen in the same geographic region more or less, which is along Lake Ontario. But it needs work. A lot of work. It would be a total embarrassment if it was published now. I'm sure it's a few years off. I have a Sci-Fi story published in a local zine that dropped recently. 

JR: What's the zine/story?

AM: It's a short I wrote a few years ago when I was working at a call center in Ottawa. I couldn't find work in Montreal. It was in a Montreal zine called Plasmag. It also appears on the SEF III LP.

JR: Cool - that's pretty much all my questions I think unless you can think of anything. Last ones - read anything good lately? What's in the future for you as Drainolith & Alex Moskos?

AM: I'm reading the latest Duke Ellington biography and Little Heroes by Norman Spinrad, which you should check. In terms of my output, I’m gonna start making a new Drainolith record soon.