Apollo's Harp interview with Ari Joshua (Dragons Layer)

Apollo's Harp
Interview : Ari Joshua on ‘Dragons Layer’
interview Oct 7, 2023

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and experimental artist, Ari Joshua presents an interactive and explorative soundscape with his latest release, Dragons Layer. The song, he describes, is designed to help the listener confront and find the path to glory through the hurdles, problems, or difficulties that they face. And the brilliance of it is in how the sonic journey molds itself to suit your story, your experience, and your fight. The track features the artistic talent and work of John Medeski, Jason Fraticelli, and Billy Martin. Listen Now

1. Your latest release, ‘Dragons Layer’ presents a fantasy world with its ambient mystery, avant-garde instrumentals, and explorative storytelling. What did you set out to achieve with the track? And how does the title, ‘Dragons Layer’ help the listener appreciate the theme?

I went into the session with 25 ideas pre-written and an open mind as to what we would attack as a group. I had a bunch of really conceptual teachers in New York, and I have always gravitated to storytelling and music. Maria Schneider always encouraged us to envision a character and to use music to tell the story. She was like, if you can’t conceptualize your own imagery, then don’t expect the listener to be able to. She was like; It’s less important if the listener’s imagination matches yours, but the listener will be affected by the level of intentions you put in. For you to say the song “presents a fantasy world with ambient mystery, avant-garde instrumentals, and explorative storytelling.” This is a treat to hear in an interview, and it means I did something right. This song has a dark sinister sound to it. I envisioned this as an ‘Adult Swim’ theme song. That would be my dream here on this one.

I have heard people call chasing a dream, and also drug addiction both referred to as ‘The Dragon’. You hear people say things like slay the dragon, ride the dragon, tame the dragon, and chase the dragon. All my music has a root intention of one form or another, and this one I would say is to imagine your biggest fear or dream or obstacle you are facing right now and imagine it to be a dragon. Take a few deep breaths, and feel that story. Now, go walk up to that dragon in its lair, for me, it’s a mountain and the endless cache of gold and jewels representing the gifts of life, but you make it what you want. The listener chooses their own adventure. Are you going to ride like Daenerys Targaryen, or one of her relatives? Are you going to be the dragon? Are you going to destroy the dragon? Befriend it? Are you going to let it loose on your fears? Or perhaps you just are watching it do its thing totally regardless of your own will, and vision? Maybe it’s not even a dragon, shoot tell me what YOU see. The stage is set, close your eyes, and let’s just take a ride. That’s the same with all my music. You get to ride it and I get to write it, what an absolute honor!

2. The track features the talent of three other musicians alongside you. What roles did each of them play in helping you realize your creative vision?

Dang, these guys are brilliant, some of the most prolific and relevant artists around. I have been an admirer for as long as I can recall, and all the while I held on to the possibility of this happening. It was a seed planted when I was in high school, and again in my university years. This session contributed to my belief that I am not and have not been crazy all these years. We were able to work in a way as just fellow artists, and on the level. When you get to work with cats like these, you get to sort of absorb through osmosis who they are and what they are about, it’s like being water. They helped me confirm that intuition and instinct have weight in this crazy world. There is a way to land softly into your own place, and it can come after you just keep doing the work.

As far as each one here is some insight.

Jason was one of my best mates, and favorite players to play with when I was 19-23 years old. We just met on the level, and we would play trio in rehearsal spaces for hours, sometimes with the light out. We would sometimes turn out the lights and play free, and other times just play tunes, like call tunes and just play for the sake of loving it. He plays with Cyro Baptista and Matisyahu among others, and he was on tour with Cyro playing in Boston. Initially, this was an organ trio session but we spoke (John and I about Bass as an option) and he basically came for two days. It allowed him and Billy and I to play trio before John loaded in, and also for him to be a part of a quartet for half the session. He allowed Medeski to not have to focus on bass, and he helped me pick the songs, like which ones to have bass, and which do not have bass. He had the invitation to stay all weekend, but he withdrew which allowed me to explore the trio. It was perfect! He also made some really amazing points for which I love Jason, and can count on him. For some context. He and I were also on a recording with our former classmate Robert Glasper and my super close friend KJ Sawka (drummer for Pendulum and drum and bass pioneer!). We were catching up and I told him, I had been struggling for a long time to share my art, and there were a lot of dynamics I was navigating in the time we had been apart, and he was really beautiful about it, and he said to me on day one before any notes where even played; “you gotta let that dove fly’. That really set the stage for the week ahead. The dove is a symbol, and one that is all over Woodstock, it was right in my face why I was there before the notes were played, Woodstock where the session was located is like the Dove capital. I brought it up and Billy would refer to it as well throughout the session. Jason also is someone I can trust, it was unexpected to have a bass on the session but it was the perfect simple twist of fate.

Billy up next. Billy really made an impression on me. I discovered he is currently teaching at The New School where Jason and I were years ago. I was able to connect to Billy around a few things, and I felt really comfortable with him, but also he was able to bring with him his artistic temperament/integrity. This was something I felt (from him) from the get-go. We had a talk on the phone and a few exchanges before we met in NY. One in particular I was in Hawaii practicing on a beach, and we talked about a few things but mainly what the concept was before he engaged or committed. I prepared links to the loops and ideas I had, and we talked about what the session may be. Billy was really clear that all that was great but what he really valued was the moment, and that any amount of prep work seemed to him to be not where his head was at. It was a contrast to John who welcomed charts and demos in advance (I assumed) so he could look at any tricky passages and such. If you listen to or have watched Billy, it will come as no surprise, but he was like, when we get in the room, then you will know what song we need to do, once we commit to that song, we will give that song the attention there, and all the other stuff, my notes or charts where inconsequential for him. This really was so beautiful and set the stage for the flow that came. He looked at me a few times and said a few things that just resonated so deeply, it was a vibe. He was as deep as I anticipated, deep waters, but it was really a treat to enter his space and share a space, a fertile space where anything can happen, and where we could just be there, where there was a concept for both the yin and yang in a way. It was Billy’s idea to split the session with free expressive works, and compositions, and I gladly abided..

At this point, I want to also recognize Michael Birnbaum, and Chirs Bittner. Those guys are the secret sauce on this collection of works, the stuff still to come, and the 3 things out there now. Michael has run this studio for a while, had a room ready for me after a red-eye flight and a day-long drive up there, and Chris who is the engineer was all set up with mics and amps and sounds when I woke up the next day. I have since traveled back up there, and it’s really those guys, they have a vibe, that’s really familiar and healthy for a working artist up there. The last time I was there I sat with the fireflies, and it was magical, like one of the best nights of my summer.

Lastly, John. John Medeski is one of those guys, just like Billy, and many great artists, you can just see why they are how they are. John was really professional, like a veteran, I left thinking, I wanna work with this guy again, and you can see why other people would want to work with him. He is authentically who he is and it’s evident in a consistent body of quality work over time. His work has that balance of organic reckless abandon mixed with careful and delicate calculated intent. He brings a depth of language across styles and genres, and a confidence, to where all the mistakes are part of the whole thing. Those guys both brought this stuff to the process. His precision with the rhythm and ability to both hit the mark intentionally and miss it completely in an effort to always find the actual target. He can basically move the target with every step and just like to make art like that. Both those guys were really generous with inviting me into their worlds and sharing the moments. Every idea they had was lit like a yeah, that’s deep, and feels good, even when they didn’t have an idea, there was contribution in the non-contribution. Sometimes you meet folks you look up to that don’t have a space for you or it can take time to fit in. With this group, it was like these are people like I would have played with on a playground as a kid, like maybe we would have eaten lunch together in the cafeteria every once in a while. What I mean is there is a reason why they are how they are, and maybe because we all come from that pre-technological era, or whatever it is but John was really great, he was like a ‘game on’ person.

Overall, The arc of the session was a vibe, it started getting some sounds, and then with a long improvised jam. That jam can be heard on the release ‘Meeting Of the Minds’, the title was inspired by Burgandy Visoci’s artwork, but it is just us no overdubs, meeting for the first time as a unit, we managed to explore like 10 really cool themes in about 40 minutes or so, I think it set the stage, cause everyone was participating, and conversations where happening, it unplanned but was like one of the best parts of the whole thing, I could have left there and then and been like, yeah this works, that was fun, and it set the whole vibe.

3. You’re known for your passion for experimentation. What about the unexplored appeals to you and how does it drive you to your sound?

The whole thing that we are doing is unknown. What are we? Who are we really? Are we bodies experiencing a spiritual space, or are we spirits experiencing a body space? One of the classic problems with society is we are mostly operating on reality based on what we ‘do know’. Making daily decisions based on things that we know. But there is so much more that we don’t know! I mean like on an infinitely bigger scale is what we don’t know but we walk around so concerned about these small mico realities. I think this is what we get to do as artists, we can tap into the bigger picture a bit, and tune into ‘frequencies’. The unexplored is a big part of the work we do. If we only dealt with ideas we already know, there would be very little growth. I think it ultimately has to do with being a person who wants to grow and be a part of evolution, and a conscious being. The sound is an expression of the unknown, and something so much bigger than we are. The truth is often more closely reflected in the unknown than the known I feel. I mean at the very least let’s poke holes in the things that box us in. Those holes sort of let the light in, and the light is like the source. The source is literally unknown, it’s like the known is matter, but ultimately it’s no matter that makes it all happen. The sound is there, that’s where it is what you want to tap into is the best sound you can get to tap in. At that point it has to move you, you have to have experienced it, and then you know what it is where it comes around. Then you have a compass, and the compass for me is saying, it’s what you know that you need to know to get to the place where you can approach the unknown. It’s in that process that you can start the journey.

4. Your compositions are highly imaginative and better yet, profound. What roles do intuition and intention play in sonic building?

Well, I put in my time early on. I mean from 7th grade I started to invest time and energy into this. I did my math homework in my science class, and my science homework in my math class. When I got home from school I didn’t have as much homework and I put on records and studied. My intention was never to play fast or whatever, I wanted to access the feelings. I wanted to walk a mile in the music I loved shoes. In these regards intuition and intention are everything when doing sonic building. You nailed it, you set me up like a pitcher or a quarterback. I invested in the moments I had with the highly imaginative forces that were available to me growing up, and I was fortunate to place myself with mentors, and teachers that reinforced those beliefs. I take what I know, and use it as a launchpad to get into orbit, and then I can explore the unknown as much as possible. My intention is always to experience the moments and to give and share in the art. My intuition is something I am working on trusting and listening to. That’s the primary driving force I would say.

Thanks for the great questions, you asked the perfect questions, and it was really fun to do this with you!

ari joshua dragon's layer experimental avant garde

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