Chris Schlarb, photographed by his wife Adriana
Improvisation, essentially making something up as you go along, can be the ultimate way of expressing a “new song” for a musician. For Long Beach guitarist Chris Schlarb, that kind of off-the-cuff creativity has become his bread and butter. His compositions involve traditional and modernistic methods of writing and leave plenty of room for free expression. Chris has become one of Southern California’s premier improvising musicians and producers of fringe recordings.
For the past several years, Chris has primarily focused on two recurring projects: I Heart Lung, which is usually a duo project with drummer/painter Tom Steck; and Create(!), an ensemble centered around Schlarb, bassist Orlando Greenhill and drummer Steve Richardson. He also runs the Sounds Are Active record label, which has been receiving much critical acclaim. His career has recently taken a giant leap forward with Twilight and Ghost Stories, his first official solo album. Chris took the time to tell Artists’ Work B.e.n.c.h. about the past decade or so of his unusual career, including the slow process of getting the ball rolling.
“Before Orlando, Steve and I formed Create (!) I spent a year writing songs and practicing with a trio. We played three shows in a year. Once Create (!) came together we played out from the first time we ever considered ourselves a band. It was a complete reversal and was, I think, very important for me at the time.” Greenhill had already spent some time playing in the oddball Christian folk-jazz band Havalina Rail Co. when Create(!) came together. The ensemble does not make your average CCM music, of course; most Christian radio fans would have a hard time coming to terms with their blend of quiet introspection, funk rhythms, and all-out rock-tinged improvisations.
L-R: Orlando Greenhill and Chris Schlarb of Create(!)
Schlarb loves to mix it up stylistically. “Over time, I have vacillated between composed and improvised music. Currently I enjoy performing in improvised settings and recording using a mixture of the two. I don't know that I have an overt stylistic focus on any kind of music, marketable or not. I love collaborating with artists from all different kinds of disciplines. Ultimately I am trying to create something that I find enjoyable. Hopefully listeners will agree.”
When Create(!) debuted in 2000 with Moth Nor Rust (the album title taken, obviously, from Matthew 6:19), some of the critical establishment saw a lot of promise in the band. They have lived up to, and exceeded, expectations on their subsequent albums, Patterns and A Prospect of Freedom. Often the band has been augmented with other players, including Orlando’s father Richard on keyboards, trumpeters Ian Souter and Kris Tiner, brass player Danny Levin, reeds player Lynn Johnston, and occasional DJs and MCs.
Greenhill and Schlarb like to share their passion for creative music with the younger generation. “Since 2001, Orlando Greenhill and I have been maintaining the Create (!) Workshops at parks and schools throughout Long Beach and L.A. It is important that we constantly be engaged with our communities and the youth that live in them.”
Schlarb likes having the opportunity to stretch his creative muscles in different directions with different ensembles. “When I sit down to write and work on my own music, the goal is to create something that I, myself, would enjoy. I don't know if that goal has ever changed, although my tastes have. The nice thing about having all these different projects is that I can expand or contract my collaborative palette, which is very freeing. I think that from the beginning Create (!) was an artistic/spiritual marriage. The result of Create (!) not having a leader, however, results in a very different dynamic than most other groups. Perhaps in the early days we considered God to be the leader and none of us stepped forward to marshal the group's direction.
L-R: Tom Steck and Chris Schlarb of I Heart Lung
“With I Heart Lung, Tom Steck and I have always had a very unique musical connection. I couldn't make music like I Heart Lung without him. We share a bizarre sense of rhythm and a fractured melodic vocabulary. I think we see beauty and chaos as very complimentary elements to one another. As far as my own solo material is concerned, it is important for me to get away and focus on a completely different set of ideas and concepts. The side benefit is that my batteries are charged when I come back into the creative group setting.”
I Heart Lung has enjoyed the opportunity to tour more widely than Create(!), due in part to the smaller duo setting (although sometimes saxophonist Peter Chan or bassist Anthony Shadduck will join in). In live performances Steck and Schlarb clearly enjoy the wild interplay that occurs between them, whether it’s a relative standard like John Coltrane’s “Seraphic Light”, Schlarb’s compelling composition “Wheelchair Graduation”, or a full-on duo improvisation. The two musicians set up on separate ends of the stage as if they were two prize fighters squaring off.
Like many Christian musicians, Schlarb and his friends had some negative experiences when it came to fitting their concepts of art into church settings. When asked about the role of art and artists in the Christian faith today, Chris replied, “I used to think about this question quite a lot. I know there are communities of Christians out there who are patrons of the arts and feel that their connection to God is one that hinges upon the act of creating. That having been said, I think I have tired of evangelizing about the union of faith and art. I feel as though my time is better spent acting and thereby affecting.
“There was a time when I was very concerned with alternate forms of worship and empowering people to worship God in their own ways. I have always had a hard time listening to most of the music played in the modern American church. That having been said, the church I used to attend wanted no part of their artistic community. I scheduled a meeting with one of the associate pastors, and he said his own musical talents were unappreciated by the church. The founding members of Create (!) all attended the same church and went unused. I would say that most churches are hardly paragons for change. They are entrenched in survival and tradition. Sounds like the music industry, now that I think about it.”
Chris Schlarb performing “Twilight and Ghost Stories” in Austin, Texas, July 2008
It has been difficult for Schlarb to find a solid niche in the music business, but the past few years have been very rewarding for him, both professionally and personally. “It is possible that my first marriage was a victim of this pursuit, among other contributing factors. Certain frustrations mount when stuck behind a desk in an office. If things remain too static, I can get apathetic. That's a dangerous place to be.” Schlarb’s second wife, Adriana, has been a tremendous boon to his career, accompanying him on tours and photographing his performances.
He feels optimistic about the future of improvised music and its audience. “I have enjoyed the process of being a businessperson, and running Sounds Are Active has been a great experience for me. The kind of music that I have released and continue to release, however, is an acquired taste. There is a kind of education that needs to take place over a period of time, perhaps, to fully appreciate what is taking place. That is a lot to ask of the average listener. Conversely, there are a lot of educated, intense listeners out there, maybe more than ever.” He does caution performers to keep realistic expectations for the business. “Music itself is infinitely sustainable. Often, it is the expectations of the artist that cannot be sustained. I think the expectation of anything is a serious issue. One thing I always say is to keep your expectations low and you will always be happy. It's a strange dichotomy, but you must require both healthy amounts of confidence and a humility. I don't take one album sale or someone's attendance at a show for granted.”
For Schlarb, the acclaimed Twilight and Ghost Stories is a tale of triumph born out of misery. After his first wife left him and took their kids, he was sitting at home alone one night when a rainstorm hit Long Beach. He listened to the sound of the rain for a while, then was inspired to hook up some microphones and record it. The roughly forty-minute recording became the backdrop of Twilight, upon which he overdubbed musical ideas from himself and several dozen other sources: Greenhill, new Create(!) drummer Justice Constantine, soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, indie music darling Sufjan Stevens, his wife’s voice, his son’s fetal heartbeat. Accolades for the album have come from far and wide, and have even led to requests for Schlarb to recreate some of the piece in live concerts. He has performed the piece in San Francisco, Austin, TX and Athens, GA and will do two shows with special guest musicians at New York City’s hot improv club, The Stone, on the weekend of February 7th, 2009. A final show in Los Angeles will follow. “Putting these Twilight ensembles together has been a bit of a dream come true. One of my real passions is bringing different communities of musicians together, and these performances are the absolute embodiment of that. I have had the pleasure of working with many of the people who I consider the best in their field. Not a day goes by where I don't shake my head in confusion and wonder.”
Schlarb intends to keep growing as a performer, composer and producer. “I would certainly like to be a better writer. I have story ideas and things creeping around in my head that would be fun to work on eventually. Right now, however, I really want to discipline myself with music theory. I have avoided it for too long and some recent lessons with (pianist and instrument inventor) Cooper-Moore have emboldened me.” Besides upcoming recordings on Sounds Are Active and Asthmatic Kitty Records, Schlarb has recently done some impressive soundtrack work. “I recently completed a soundtrack for a video game coming out on the Nintendo Wii later this year. Although it was a new and challenging medium, I am very proud of that work.” He produced and performed in the film “40 Bands/80 Minutes”, documenting the extreme music scene in Los Angeles. He also composed for the soundtrack of “Sold: Thailand”, a new documentary on the sex trade in Southeast Asia (http://thesoldproject.com).
Chris’ schedule is seemingly relentless. “I have a number of different jobs and projects ongoing at any time. In addition to working on production, recording, performing and composing I also still run Sounds Are Active and have to manage my own touring and performance schedule. It seems like I am usually bouncing between emails, audio work, minor web stuff, writing, practicing and picking up and dropping off my kids at school. Honestly, I have yet to get into a solid work routine. I'm hoping that materializes sometime soon.”
Chris Schlarb: http://www.chrisschlarb.com/
I Heart Lung: http://www.iheartlung.com/
Sounds Are Active Records: http://www.soundsareactive.com/
To read about other contemporary Christians working in the arts, click on the links below.
John "Drumbo" French