Basement Broadcasts: Live Improvisational Journeys on Tape

I first learned about Bugs In The Basement when I mentioned my new project, a label focusing on “right brain music,” in a casual conversation. Without taking a breath or asking for a definition of this term I had just introduced, my friend said, “I know two people you need to talk to,” and referred me to the BITB website. That night I clicked play on one of the tracks there, and a door to a new room opened. I haven’t been able to extricate myself since.

In short, Bugs In The Basement is a collaboration between two people who create spontaneous music in weekly sessions. They then post the recordings on their site as well as a podcast of the same name. Over five years into the project, they’ve amassed a repertoire of that could fill several hundred vinyl albums.

Right Brain Records announces the release of  Volume 1, t he first formal album by the prolific duo  Bugs In The Basement .

Right Brain Records announces the release of Volume 1, the first formal album by the prolific duo Bugs In The Basement.

It occurred to me that this ongoing sonic art installation turns many of the “rules” of music production upside down.

I could try to describe the music itself – which varies widely, even from week to week, and thereby defies simple description – but I’d rather tell you about my experience of it: 

A typical episode starts slowly, hypnotically easing into a groove. I find myself relaxing and losing the impatience and need for constant stimulation that characterizes my (and many people’s) daily lives. I may be walking through a park, staring out a window or focusing intently on the sounds… gradually the music melds with whatever I’m doing. Within loops and other repeating themes, I start to notice layers and subtle changes in the soundscape. Inevitably, at some point I register that the piece has evolved into something entirely different… and I have no idea how we got there. My sense of the passage of time is turned inside out.

Modern music can seem long after three minutes, but here 20 minutes can flow effortlessly as an on-ramp to a new and surprising place, and each episode can last well over an hour. Sometimes I feel relaxed, but gradual variations in mood, tempo and texture add dramatic tension. After a session reaches resolution I feel changed, but not in a predictable way. I’ve learned to quell expectations of what a new episode will bring, and that surprise is a key part of the experience. The experience helps me let go of a need to understand or anticipate, instead building a willingness to be part of the journey as it unfolds. Though I’ve been producing music for a long time, I can be tempted to analyze how this can be recorded live with just two participants; I’ve learned to surrender that need as well.

As Bugs describe it, they “experiment in the process of making exploratory music and soundscapes.” I hear many musical influences yet find it hard to point to anything quite comparable. We’re used to categorizing and pigeon-holing music (and everything else) and BITB doesn’t fit the categories.

Still, there are descriptive facts: The collaborators are multi-instrumentalists with over 40 years’ performance and production experience between them. They employ many tools, “from an array vintage and handmade instruments to modern technologies.” “Bugs” refers not to creatures inhabiting dark corners of their studio, but rather to ongoing technical details of a complex live recording set-up.

BITB had not formally published a recording before this year. We wondered, with a repertoire this large (and always growing), how can we best translate their work into an album format?  After some discussion we agreed that it would be a curated program composed from selections of a time period’s sessions.

And that’s what Volume 1 is. As the “curator,” I chose portions of episodes recorded in the first half of 2018 and assembled them into a sequence that, I believe, reflects the ethereal, evolving quality of BITB’s work in an integrated travelogue through lands discovered on their journey.

In getting to know Bugs, I came to understand their philosophy, which is rooted in experimentation, exploration, an absence of ego or judgement, freely sharing their outcomes and – most importantly – making the world a better place through music. The last aligns perfectly with the purpose of Right Brain Records.

I encourage you to listen to the full album, as well as the Bugs In The Basement Podcast to get a true taste of this unique ongoing project.

Scott Schaffer