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Larval life

Bill Brovold: "The world is backwards."
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Published 4/9/2003

Bill Brovold shrugs and calls himself a “souped-up carpenter.” In a self-effacing sort of way, it’s true. To make a living he sells lovely, Modern-influenced furniture which he sometimes creates from single blocks of maple. “I don’t tell people I’m an artist. You know, I want to get paid for my work,” he says, laughing. “But if you really want to get fucked, tell them you are a musician.”

Well, he is a musician — and an artist — which means, of course, he’s been screwed. Brovold, in fact, is a kind of Zen-inspired auditory theorist: he composes extraordinary noise-damaged pieces that, at worst, border art-wank prog, and, at best, induce goose bumps and transcendent calm by way of earsplitting mayhem.

“I happen to love the sound of machines,” he says as if to understate the dense qualities of the music he produces with his band Larval.

The lanky, long-limbed gent is disheveled after a long day swilling coffee and sweating over his workbench. He lives and works in an airy Royal Oak space that was a car garage in the 1920s. On one side is a workshop: power saws, workbenches, and paintings. On the other, an old GE stereo, a drum kit, an antiquated Hammond organ, a couple of yellow-keyed upright pianos and a complete recording studio called Koko. He sleeps in the studio’s large vocal booth (which rests on wheels, another Brovold design). His refrigerator is bereft of food, save for a bit of wine and a beer or two.

He’s recorded and produced records here for Monster Island (a Destroy All Monsters offshoot), Boston poppers the Real Kids, Lozenge, Norway’s Kroyt, and lunatic Daevid Allen from Gong, among others.

The Tacoma-born Brovold grew up an Army brat and lived in Japan and Korea. His pop was a drill sergeant in World War II and his mom studied classical piano at the London Conservatory until the blitz started in 1940. The parental mix, Brovold snickers, might account for some of his “nice-not nice” qualities. He picked up the guitar as a teenager and got into country music.

He landed in Manhattan on a scholarship and attended the School of Visual Arts in 1979. After graduation in 1982, he co-designed and built the set of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video, and later constructed a steam-powered tornado for a Laurie Anderson European tour. He had a part digging up corpses in the underground horror gem Maniac Cop. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers played his wedding in 1986.

He describes his paintings as “sort of Americana with a twist. Or, really, real Americana.” They’ve made the rounds; he’s had showings in Berlin, London, Seattle, New York, Columbia University and in Detroit at CPOP.

In New York, Brovold made a name for himself as part of an art-skronking, noise orchestra elite seeking to swell the sonic possibilities of art, post-punk, jazz and prog rock.

Among others, he worked with violinist-filmmaker Tony Conrad and with trailblazing post-minimalists Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham (spending five years on guitar with the latter). He shared band members with John Cale, shared bills with groundbreaking composers John Cage and John Zorn.

That was before gentrification sucked the life out of the East Village and the Lower East Side.

“A lot of who I played with was out of proximity,” he says. “It was that kind of place. A couple blocks away was Richard Hell; he lived next door to Ginsberg. At the end of my street was Philip Glass. John Zorn lived a block away in Kerouac’s old apartment. Burroughs lived a few blocks away. You could go on and on.”

He spent time in the lauded Zen Vikings with James Lo and Ernie Brooks. “We had trombone players from La Monte Young’s orchestra. They show up at our CBGBs gig after a La Monte performance wearing tuxes,” he laughs.

Throughout the 1980s, Brovold wrote music for films and performance artists. In 1994, he moved to Detroit with his family. (He’s now separated from his wife and has two children: Thor, 14, and Gus, 11.)

Brovold formed the “symphonic rock” band Larval — of which he is the only permanent member — with a revolving door of stellar local and international musicians that include violinists, cellists and sax players. John Zorn’s Japanese label, Avant, released Larval’s self-titled 1997 debut.

Records for the New York-based Knitting Factory label followed to gushes from foreign critics. In fact, 1998’s 2 and 2000’s Predator or Prey did well enough overseas for Brovold to inquire about royalties. But the self-managed musician hit the proverbial wall. He was told to “get in line behind Bill Laswell, Elliot Sharpe, and Fred Frith.” In 2000, Tzadik released a solo Brovold record in that label’s modern composers series.

The four records have established Brovold and, specifically, Larval, a fan base in Japan, Turkey, France and Scandinavia. Funny for a band that, at this point, can’t get arrested in Detroit.

“Club promoters don’t return e-mails or phone calls from us,” he says, exhaling a mouthful of cigar smoke. “The only shows we’ve done around here were because somebody like Pere Ubu was coming through and actually requested us.”

Brovold concedes that things in Detroit have worsened since the days when Larval would regularly play at venues such as the Gold Dollar, Magic Stick, the old Alvin’s and St. Andrew’s Hall.

“The Detroit scene has changed in terms of openness to new things,” he says, adding that this isn’t the jaded pissiness of a long-in-the-tooth musician. He pauses, nods his head at the absurdity of what he’s about to say, and says, “Believe it or not, Nirvana played in Seattle.”

Larval’s sound is often cold and despairing, menacing and engaging, yet it can be poppy at other times. And Brovold’s guitar playing suggests Tom Verlaine from Television as a reference point.

“I see things that are completely out of control,” Brovold says when I asked him the genesis of his compositions. “It’s not really familiar stuff, but there’s familiarity.”

OK, form with formlessness, “jarring juxtapositions of rock with classical and jazz composition” as one critic wrote. Larval’s music is often beyond description and defies categorization.

What’s telling is this: At home Brovold prefers listening to Penguin Café, Television and Russian versions of Gregorian chants rather than anything current.

And the music that shaped him is at least equally eclectic.

A Kraftwerk show Brovold caught as a kid in the early ’70s was unforgettable, as was a weekend when he witnessed the New York Dolls at a Seattle club and the next night saw Stevie Wonder open for the Stones.

Brovold says it was the first Roxy Music record — and Brian Eno’s synthesizer parts — that altered the course of his life. “The idea that they were playing and they had a guy in the band just making this noise over the top. It was abrasive and beautiful.”

Then in 1980, he saw Glenn Branca in New York City. Another life-shifting moment. “Hearing Glenn Branca was so physical. So loud, louder by far than any rock concert.”

Larval’s latest, Obedience (Cuneiform), is the sound of protracted space; violins, saxophones and cellos rise, hang and drop, do their best to irritate, provoke and, ultimately appease, and it’s entertaining as all hell. It is so rare to hear a truly musical band that can do liberal jazzbo stuff without coming off like muso pud-pullers. “One Day I Just Kept On Walking” is one long, haunting guitar drone that has but one chord change in 11 minutes. The record resonates with droning landscapes; an instrumental travelogue brimming with what could be sound track fodder to early Polanski films (and yes, the allusion is chosen cautiously) like Repulsion or The Tenant. The record is due out May 6.

Brovold may be carving a successful living building and selling furniture, and he is accomplished in many ways, but his music career is still a strictly nonprofit concern. Brovold is the first to admit that he’s not exactly the most professional-minded when it comes to handling the managerial side of Larval.

“When you are too small to hire management, you’re gonna get pounded.” He pauses, thinks for a moment, and adds laughing, “Yeah, well, the world is backwards. I’m like a famous guy who wants to be a recluse who isn’t famous.”

At the end of the day, Brovold is off to get one of his kids to practice. Seems he’s a soccer dad too.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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