David Bernabo + Assembly
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David Bernabo + Assembly

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"Interview with Riffin'"

David Bernabo
Interviewed for Riffin' by Webjockey Heidi Patalano

Free Track Download: "McQueen Bear"

For such a soft-spoken man, you'd never guess that David Bernabo had quite so much to say. But for the prolific Pittsburgh artist, of disciplines ranging from photography, visual art, filmmaking and musicianship in folk, free jazz and graphic score composition, creative energy is on endless supply. Having churned out a staggering eight records in 2007 with his various musical projects, Bernabo's aim in 2008 is to slow down, maybe just a little bit, so that he can see his girlfriend once in a while.

As an artist publishing his work through grassroots label Sort Of Records, founded by renegade artist Raymond Morin who prefers to design and manufacture each CD by hand, David Bernabo has found an outlet for his creative musings. Riffin' chats here on the artist's current projects and why opening for Ted Leo is kind of a drag.

Riffin': Some of your music seems to follow a conventional song structure and some goes into experimental places. Can you speak on how you bring the two types together?

David Bernabo: Let me think on it a minute...(pause) I guess if I have a song, I want to do what's right for the song, not overload it with experimental tendencies if it doesn't need it. Some of the pieces on my records are based on those experimental tendencies. That decides which direction the songs will go.

I'm working on a new record and a lot of the songs border on being soul songs. I've been writing a lot of string and horn arrangements for them. The other half of the record is more technical playing, prog-like I guess. I started writing for a string quartet too, so I'm including some of that on that too. Sometimes I feel like it would be great to keep taking it further and further out and get it so that it's pure abstract music by the end of it.

Riffin': What's one of the oddest things to inspire a song of yours?

David Bernabo: I've got a new song about The Arcade Fire. I could never get into them. It's called "The Newest Thing" and it's about how I'm not feeling it. I want to like it but every time I put on the record, something about it is not doing it for me. I've put in the time. I've tried.

Riffin': You're so all over the place with all these projects. Is there any artist whose career you're hoping to emulate?

David Bernabo: This may sound cheesy but my idol, you know Jim O'Rourke? His career seems nice. I don't know how successful his records are, but I sure like them. He started off in minimal experimental music and then he did a few pop records, a few noise records and basically can do whatever he wants and there's a slight market for it. Anything more would be great but if I could get to a place where I could keep putting out records and there's some people who will pick them up and check them out, that would be enough I think. And also, Zappa. Aside from his constant frustration with everything, he could basically do whatever he wanted. I would like to get into more orchestral music eventually.

Riffin': As an artist of so many disciplines, having done films, visual art, graphic scores, free jazz and folk music, how do you decide which medium to say what with?

David Bernabo: Part of it is a matter of when an opportunity comes up to do something. Like with the art show, I was making graphic scores and then the art show came up so I just focused on that for a while. A lot of the projects lend themselves to more projects. We made a graphic score records. As of last week I have a new trio and now all of us are making graphic scores.

Riffin': Is that your group DBL-D?

David Bernabo: No, this is a new band. It's baritone sax, violin and accordion. The DBL-D, I guess we're calling it Double D, not the bra size though. I didn't even pick up on that until we made a record. Whatever opportunities come up, whoever I end up working with, that kind of dictates what project...

Riffin': Can you explain what you mean by graphic scores?

David Bernabo: It's a tradition that started in the 50's and 60's. John Cage and Cornelius Cardu started making these scores to depict musical notation that was not restricted like regular musical notation. Rather than a time signature and a given scale, now you have either instruction pieces or there's blotches on the paper, lines that mean crescendo. It gives more freedom to the player, less totalitarian I guess. It takes control out of the composer's hands. It gives more control to the player because they are performing the work. It's a search for pure sound. It's a different organizational structure. A lot of jazz improvisation defines itself by certain systems.

The graphic scores for me are a way of breaking out of those certain ways of performing and writing. Each performance will vary. It will be an eternal composition. There are always new ways of looking at it. So much of what I do ends up being fixed. If I make a record - www.riffin.com

"Assembly Review in Pop Matters"

David Bernabo
(Sort Of)
US release date: 1 June 2007
UK release date: Available as import
by Aarik Danielsen

Pittsburgh’s David Bernabo is a jack of many musical trades and if his recent full length project Assembly (which is an incredibly fitting title for a record that succeeds largely on the strength of Bernabo’s ability to fuse like and unlike sounds) gives accurate indication, a master of many. Unlike other artists pursuing an aesthetic that allows for dramatic swings in mood, tempo and texture, Bernabo is willing not only to give listeners a mere taste of his multitude of ideas but fleshes each out to achieve a proper length and effect. At times, with his mix of folk, rock, ambient and freeform jazz influences, Bernabo approximates a sound that suggests Beck or Ben Kweller attempting an experimental folk record; it is probably unfair to compare Bernabo with these artists as the project allows him to display a style all his own. Album highlights include opener “Englishness” which combines a rambling folk feel with ambient and atmospheric tones as well as “Asatru Free Folk Assembly” which exhibits both minimalistic and conventional characteristics. By album’s end, the constant shifting and segmenting can become a bit tiresome and this is certainly not a project for those who like their music to be easily classifiable. Yet, Assembly reveals Bernabo as an exciting talent likely to provide moments of musical bliss in the future.

- www.popmatters.com

"City Paper City Guide Feature"

AUGUST 23, 2007

Musician David Bernabo


David Bernabo's musical style could perhaps best be described as a stylish concoction in which folk collides with electronics, avant rock with pop, noisy improv with a touch of hip hop.

Jazz guitar, keys, beats? He can play that. Groups, solo, something in between? He can make that happen. He'll cite Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs and Paul Klee as major influences ... while also being a huge Wilco fan.

What is a constant -- aside from his wavering, evocative voice -- is Bernabo's self-imposed workload.

Over the last six months, Bernabo has released a solo EP, McQueen Bear, and a full-length album, Assembly, on Sort-Of Records. He's also curated "Woodlab," a bi-weekly showcase that results in a monthly compilation CD, which often features Bernabo's production skills, compositions and the odd sideman credit. And then there's his other projects: a new revolving band called the Ninth Ward, which he describes as "guitar-store rock," and his new improvisational group DBL D. Which also just put out an album.

"All the bands I'm in now are pretty low-commitment, and with so little time, all the projects I do have to have some immediate output," Bernabo says. With DBL D, for example, "we've only played together six times, but we have two records, I guess.

"I'm very close to burning out," he jokes. "Any day now, really."

Yet this is nothing new for Bernabo -- it started way back when he was growing up in Greenfield and the North Hills. "I started recording in fifth grade, with my dad's tape recorder that had a mic input," he says. "I had a band called Napoleon in fifth grade, and every time we practiced, I made a record. It just became a habit after awhile."

Ancient history aside, Bernabo's real debut on the Pittsburgh music scene came when he began studying finance at Carnegie Mellon and joined Eric Graff's indie rock ensemble Boxstep. Bernabo and drummer Greg Cislon eventually split off from the group to form their own more avant-rock concern, Vale and Year, which became a prominent act on the local scene. It also cemented the pattern for Bernabo's recording fixation: seven albums released between 2004 and 2006, plus several more unreleased and "in the can."

"We were doing so much material at such a fast pace [that] we didn't really go outside the band for many projects," he says. "And then after that, I'm like, 'Oh, there's all this talent in Pittsburgh, and it would be fun to work with different folks.'"

While he'll spend days or weeks at Graff's Lawrenceville studio, or recording in his spare bedroom in Bloomfield, Bernabo has a strong impulse toward the social functions of music.

Indeed, bringing diverse musicians together seems one of his principal strengths. It's also no small feat in Pittsburgh's often-contentious scene. Part of that ability no doubt stems from his quiet, seemingly ego-less manner; part of it is the result of the audience that is drawn to his experimental yet very musical output. "I think none of the music I've ever really played has been too 'hip,' so you mainly get musicians at stuff I'm doing," he acknowledges. "Not other 'fans' really."

He's also helped build a community through Woodlab, which is held at ModernFormations gallery and largely features local acoustic and improvisational music. "There are a lot of people who haven't met each other, who played shows together" at Woodlab, Bernabo notes. "There's a lot of people doing good stuff, and they might as well know each other in such a small town."

These days, Bernabo is expanding his range to include visual art. He has written several comics published by the Unicorn Mountain art collective (which also released the DBL D album), and his first solo art show is opening in August at ModernFormations. "It's a big relief from not working on music constantly," Bernabo says. Even then, though, music has a way of creeping in: Part of his upcoming show, First Haunt, includes experiments with graphic scores.

"The stuff I'm doing right now is with ink and pen, for the most part," he says. "So there's some traditional notation, but mainly there's kinda symbols or ... blobs. It's just a way you look at something and try to interpret musically -- hopefully it gets you outside your comfort zone and allows you to play something new. It's also a good exercise for me to try to develop something new I want to play without actually playing it yet. To just keep challenging myself. Because I hate to repeat anything."

- www.pghcitypaper.com


2008 David Bernabo + Assembly "Happener-Magicker"
2007 David Bernabo "Graphic Scores"
2007 David Bernabo "Assembly"
2007 David Bernabo "McQueen Bear EP"
2006 David Bernabo "Word Roses"

All of these records are released on Sort Of Records. www.sortofrecords.com. Various tracks can be streamed at www.myspace.com/davidbernabo



David Bernabo works in a variety of mediums and a variety of projects. Lately, David has scored music for Nintendo WiiWare's Critters (released in US and Japan). However, his main focus is on Assembly, a studio and live band that comprises over 25 musicians and artists. At its core, Assembly is a five-piece band that has the versatility to add string and horn sections, electronicists, filmmakers, and artists for a variety of live presentations. The music, itself, digs through a number of record crates: Zappa, Charles Ives, Jim O'Rourke, Sparks, Gyorgy Ligeti, Wilco, Van Dyke Parks, Sonic Youth.

David started his musical career recording and touring with Boxstep on Overcoat Records (US) and Homesleep (Italy). After much touring and recording, David honed his chops in the avant-rock Vale and Year, who released 7 records in four years and did two tours of the United States. Currently, David is very active in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA - producing sessions for Boca Chica, Alia Musica, Daryl Fleming, and Flotilla Way - working in commercial fields (Nintendo, PA Cyber) with his production company Woolslayer and Main Productions - curating the Abstract On Black record label, an imprint dedicated to experimental music (modern composition, electronic, avant-jazz).

David Bernabo and Assembly are available for shows, commercial work, licensing, and other opportunities.