Interview: Ellwood Epps
By Marc Montanchez
Last Sunday night, CKUT had the pleasure of sitting down in a back room of La Brique with local trumpeter/improvised music promoter Ellwood Epps. The purpose of the chat was to shed some light on the current edition of concerts he is organizing, as well as discussing improvised music, music within the greater cultural sphere of Montreal and the pros and cons of running a loft venue.
Can you give some background on who you are and what you’ve been up to?
I’m a trumpet player, improv player, concert organizer, I’ve been In Montreal for seven and a half years or so and loving it here. 5 years ago I started L’Envers with another trumpet player Philip Battikha, who has since moved to NYC.
What was the story behind that?
L’envers was a loft space on Van Horne in the Mile end area of Montreal. Philip and I had a dream of having a space that was dedicated to improvised music. We were also looking for a place to live at the same time, so everything lined up. The space on Van Horne was the 1st building we walked in to. We visited some more, but we knew that was going to be the place. It was also expensive, we knew to make it workable we would have to build rooms and have room mates. We did that and also did the electricity, built a kitchen and bathtub, all these things to make it livable and suitable for concerts. 3 months later, June 28th 2008, we did our first show. 500 shows later we’re not in the building anymore, due to problems with the law and also with the very high rent. We did eventually move to a smaller space in the same building, but again rents just got too high. Which brings us to now, where we are presenting shows weekly here at La Brique on Sundays. And on Thursday nights we’re presenting concerts at Café L’Artere, also around the corner from here on Parc Avenue.
What’s changed aside from the venue?
We’re doing the same kinds of concerts as we used to, same kind of music. This format has even allowed us to focus more on improvised music
There were a lot of other types of events at the old L’Envers…
Especially in the beginning we liked to experiment with theater, film dance and playing with the space in terms of how things were presented. Now things have to be more streamlined. We have 2 nights a week in 2 different places that have their own built in limitations, but it’s a pretty good compromise. Best thing for improvised music is to have a space dedicated to it. That’s why we started L’Enver as a space.
Well, congratulations on having had such a good run with the old space!
It was a nice thing to run and a nice thing to do. But it’s hard to separate all the aspects of it because I had my fingers in so many pies: as a performer, as a concert programmer, running a rehearsal space, mopping floors, fixing things when they were broken. Right now for me there’s a lot less “L’Envers” work and I’m spending a lot more time on my own music. I don’t have any complaints about that but I feel that there is a pull for a space dedicated exclusively to improvised music to exist again and I hope to be a part of that.
What felt special about the L’envers space was that it existed outside of the circuit of formal licensed establishments. Going there on a whim you knew you’d see something interesting, which can’t be really said about most venues.
Well the space was always curated, and that’s a pretty rare. So I’d like that aspect to be carried over to a new venue at some point. I feel like I can count on 2 hands for spaces like that on the entire planet. So if you’re a musician and you walk in to one of those rooms where you’re going to play you feel very welcome, and that’s a good vibe right off the bat. Same thing if you’re a listener of improvised music, you feel welcome into a space where it can really be done on its own terms. That’s special right there. I’d have to mention venues like Casa del Popolo and Sala Rosa- they’re great spaces with lots of great improvised music shows- but only a portion of the programming is curated and some of it is filling the calendar because they have to put on shows 365 days a year, so they can’t pick them all. I would never have booked a show at L’Envers because we needed to fill a Saturday- I booked shows because we had musicians who wanted to make something happen. So that’s an important difference.
You program these weekly shows at La Brique and Café L’Artere now until you realize your goal of having a fixed venue. It still sounds like you have your work cut out for you!
It’s some work. I should really make a point right now of thanking all the volunteers who are making things possible. For example tonight there’s a show here and there are 2 volunteers who are helping arrange the room, do the door, and hopefully getting people to sign out mailing list. I have a wonderful volunteer coordinator who makes sure everything is working, Felix. And Alex Pelchat is my right-hand man in terms of doing labour for shows and doing a lot of curating of shows. And Moral support! He came up with the idea of Nuits des Solos. But in the beginning the workload was overwhelming at times, running a rehearsal space is difficult. I didn’t get paid for any of that, it wasn’t the goal. My workload now is 10% of what it was then. For example, one time would-be thieves broke down the door and I lost an important rehearsal gig due to having to spend an entire day fixing a door. That kind of stuff happened often, there were always things coming up. Now the 1st thing I do in the morning is practice the trumpet, the 1st thing I always did then was take care of that space. I sleep better at night these days!
About that mailing list…
Yes, if people want to find out more about L’envers we’re on Facebook as Lenvers 185. We have a blog which is Lenvers185.blogspot.com which basically has show listings. Eventually it’ll have more information on it. Through that blog people can get in touch with us if they want to get on our mailing list or come to a show. And we’re always looking for volunteers. At this moment that means basically working at a show, which means seeing a free show. Eventually there will be a lot of work. Late June will be our 5th anniversary and I want to do something big, and re-mount a fundraising campaign.
The last fundraiser you did was really successful
It was, too bad we got busted a few months later! Yeah, we needed 1500 to get over rent, and we made over 6000, which was shocking. A lot of that is still put away to help with general costs associated with these shows, such as piano tuning and paying for the rooms etc.
It does seem interesting this idea of a venue existing in multiple spaces.
Yeah, at the same time La Brique has been going now for 8 years or so it’s one of the 1st places I came to when I moved to Montreal where I really felt at home as a listener and as a player. It’s where I got the inspiration for doing shows. I don’t think it’s an accident that it faces the same rail yards as L’envers did.
This is probably the last somewhat central neighbourhood where places like this can exist.
I still think Montreal is a great city for finding places like this where it’s somewhat affordable and you can make noise, not be bothering neighbours and not be on the radar in certain ways.
Amen to that…
EE: But it is getting more difficult. This neighbourhood sure is changing. We’re sitting here looking out at what I call Mordor- black piles of rocks from the Universite de Montreal mega Campus construction project.
It will definitely affect the character of this area.
They’ve already shut down a major portion of the train switching yards. We were here at the right time.
To switch tracks, I wanted to comment on how fortunate I often feel when I come to improv shows in Montreal and there’s this astounding caliber of musicians playing literally an arm’s length away. Part of what motivated this interview is to help get the word out of how amazing this experience is.
Since I’ve lived in Montreal, the audience has grown a lot for this type of music. There are basically more shows going on, such as the Mardi Spaghetti at Cagibi
Which you organize…
I started the series but now it’s organized by other people, still every Tuesday. So since the same amount of people but way more shows, so the audience is definitely bigger. Running L’envers as a loft space meant that people came for the welcoming factor of the space.
I always feel loft venue shows are more exciting. I’m thinking maybe it resonates with the speakeasy era of Jazz in Montreal, or other associations that remove the sterility of the seal of government approval…
Well, you feel like you’re part of something. You’re not being sold a product. You’re considered a partner in the event. To get back to your other statement, one problem is that this type of music is not for everybody, but we’ll never know the level of interest if it’s always marginalized in the context of support from larger promoters and official cultural programming in the city. I don’t even know why they call the Jazz festival jazz. But this idea of improvised music as hard or difficult to listen to is bullshit. Good music is never harder to listen to.
I traveled to New Orleans for the 1st time not too long ago and it struck me how that city seems to embrace music as a vital aspect of its culture. I got the sense that there was a high level of tolerance and outright support for all of it, from the fancy lounge acts to random brass ensembles breaking out a jam on any sidewalk or an accordion player wailing away down the hotel strip sidewalk. There was this sense that it doesn’t matter if laws are being broken, the music is everything.
I have to say that I feel there is a good level of support in Montreal, especially compared to Toronto where I came from. I think there’s more support here for things that aren’t strictly commercial. And people go out here at night. They go out for theater, dance, art; it’s a big part of the culture here. So it’s sort of relevant depending on where you come from. Also, since I’ve been here I feel there are more musicians; there are more things happening, more venues, more series, and a bigger audience. And the best part is that the music is getting better. Musicians are playing all the time, there’s this sense of saying “gee, I’m playing again next week I can’t go back out there and do the same stuff”, so the more we play the more we kick our own asses to explore other things and push ourselves. It’s still a small city in one sense, but there’s a lot going on for its relative size.
For a small city, it seems like there’s a lot of great players. We were talking before about veteran people like Jean Derome, Murray street Ensemble led by John Heward played here last week, Malcolm Goldstien, Rainer Wiens..,
What’s great is those people have been here and they never left, and they play with the new people so it creates a lineage.
And it’s always cool to see people like that on the same stage with younger people who may be more associated with alternative rock, or other avant garde derived forms such as noise or electronic music.
Yeah, that’s really healthy for the music definitely. And in terms of different generations of musicians playing together. I’m relatively young and I play with people that are 18 all the way to in their 80’s. And also to play with musicians from other cultural backgrounds is essential. All that is healthy for the music, it feeds back into it and gives it growth. Imagine you’re Miles Davis, you have the best band in the world and record a ground-breaking record of works of art in the cannon of jazz music, and then you fire the band! You hire younger people because you don’t want to get comfortable and you want to share what you know so that it’s not lost, but you also want to get yourself motivated to play better or in a new way by the fear of what’s coming next.
What I find exciting about improvised music is the element of risk; you never really know what’s going to happen…
Oh it’s absolutely that and improvising has the highest risk factor of any music. You take a risk just by showing up already.
How can that not be exciting!
Oh yeah, when you’re improvising you can really fly or you can really crash. I love being around that tightrope walk without a net. Improvising to me is the ultimate version of letting go of any crutches and striving for honesty. Real improvisers are not just improvising though, they are composing and improvising in real time, it’s an extremely fast process. So you have an extremely big responsibility to your instrument to handle everything that’s coming through your pipeline. There’s a solid craft aspect of being able to do certain things on your instrument that are being conjured mentally, and then there’s the aspect of “do you have anything to say”. Realistically you’re not on fire every single minute, but you aim to prepare yourself to go on stage and leave all the technique behind and enter to a space of uncertainty. That takes a lifetime of dedication of doing that, practicing every day. Ultimately you can’t be thinking about anything.
Thinking is a very slow process compared to playing, it will drag you down.
Sometimes thinking doesn’t feel as natural as playing or just listening.
Thinking has its uses! It’s not a bad thing, it’s all about knowing when to apply it. If you think too much you have to stop and think. Being on stage is not the place to stop and think, it’s the place to let whatever is flowing run its course.
Well, thank you for providing spaces and venues for a lot of this to happen!
It’s work that needs to be done, so I’m going to keep on doing it.
What’s coming up?
We’re getting the rhythm now of having the shows every Sunday at La Brique and Every Thursday at Café L’artere. I’m really working on getting these shows going on a regular basis, and keeping busy with my own music. I’m happy feeling responsible for my own music and organizing shows for music that needs to be put out there especially when I don’t have to mop any floors to do it!