Brian: On DC Music Rocks, we're shining a spotlight on the great songs, artists, and incredible people behind the DC region's local music scene.
Boat Burning is a five-guitar experimental rock collective from DC, plays a "maximal minimalism," an intricate hybrid of composition and improvisation where simple passages played by a multitude of instruments, in this case, like this weekend, sometimes even 100 guitars produce shimmering towers, literally towers of harmonics and sound. The result is majestic. It's evocative music that combines a widescreen, panoramic sweep of the classical and with the sheer visceral thrill of punk. There's just so much power happening.
I first came across Boat Burning last year when they did the show. It was 70 guitars last year at the Black Cat, and that was an overpowering event that was really cool to experience. So now I am so excited, Andras, to have you here with me to talk about it this year, so thanks for being here.
Andras: Oh, thanks so much. Yeah, it's an honor, really.
Brian: So now tell people a little more, then. So the Boat Burning event, let's ... First, let's talk about the band Boat Burning and then the event. First, there's the band, and the band is ... What's the instrumentation of the band and how did the band, Boat Burning, get its start?
Andras: Okay, the instrumentation of the band right now is five electric guitars, we don't have a bass, and we have a drummer.
Brian: So five guitars and drums.
Andras: And drums.
Brian: Got it. Okay.
Andras: And that's it. And that's it. Sometimes we have an occasional keyboard, but that's usually it. The way we compensate for not having a bass is we put the guitars in a really unusual tuning that allow the guitars to sort of do clashing harmonics that sort of naturally synthesize the sound of a bass. So when you listen to the music, you don't really think that there's a missing bass. You don't really miss it. And because we also have these clashing harmonics, we don't think you need vocals with it because you also get this soaring sort of vocal component to it.
Brian: So it's an instrumental show, too.
Andras: Yeah. This entire show, the Music for Mass Guitars at the 9:30 Club coming up this Sunday, for the 100 guitars, it's going to be entirely instrumental, yeah.
Brian: I see. So it's five guitars normally, and then you scale it up to be 100 guitars for this special event that you're doing at the 9:30 Club.
Andras: Exactly right, yeah.
Brian: I see now. Okay.
Andras: Yeah, yeah. Boat Burning, you will see we play out in clubs like Rock & Roll Hotel and DC9 and places like that about once every month or two. I think we played at Comet Ping Pong recently. And we play in the smaller configuration, but we play the same pieces that we play in the mass guitar shows. Most of the same. Some of them are a little bit more complex, and so we're able to do more complex things when we have the smaller ensemble. And so they sound a little math rock-y whereas-
Brian: Math rock-y, I've never heard that term. Okay.
Andras: Well, yeah, so interesting time signatures and a little bit trickier than what you'd want to attempt with 100 guitars. But for the mass guitar shows, we take certain pieces, rework them such that we can spread out the sound among four to seven groups of electric guitars and each of them acting independently. So the staging is kind of interesting. You have an immersive sound. So you'll see that at 9:30 Club.
Brian: The name Boat Burning, where does that come from?
Andras: We wanted something that was light and signaled buoyancy and something airy but also kind of ominous and edgy. We thought that "Boat Burning" kind of fit the bill. There's another story that goes to that. When Boat Burning first started, it was a pure improvisational outfit, so that meant that when we got on stage, we had nothing. We would just start playing. It was kind of like improvisation without a net, so it was not like-
Brian: We just turned this into a full-contact sport here. It's improvisation without a net. I mean, this is ... Oh, yeah.
Andras: It was interesting. The idea was to make a full-on improvisation where you're creating everything. No preconceived notions. No jazzy sort of things where you start out with a motif and then everybody plays a theme and then does a little solo, then everybody returns to the ... No. We would just start playing. But the idea was to also, it was called "conprovisation." The idea is sort of create improvisation that had the shape and flow and narrative thrust of a composed piece. So it was like improvisation with heft. It sounded pretty good, but because we went without a net like that ...
We like the idea of Boat Burning because it's a reference to, and this may sound a little corny, but it's kind of a reference to Alexander the Great. There's a story about him when he arrived to invade Persia. His men were faced with this gigantic army, and they had just landed on the beaches. They came to him, and they said, "We got to get out of here," and he ordered them to burn the boats. And he said, "We go home in Persian ships or we die."
Brian: Wow, that's intense.
Andras: It was kind of a dramatic way to look at this sort of do-or-die effort to do improvisation.
Brian: That's it. Do or die, meaning you go up there, and you do it, there's no net, and it's on. Just go for it.
Andras: Yeah, yeah. But we didn't end up doing an official recording of any of that period. So when I came up here, we did that for a little bit, but then we started moving-
Brian: You said, "Come up here." Where were you?
Andras: Boat Burning was formed in Chapel Hill, so in 2000-
Brian: Oh, North Carolina. Wow. Cool.
Andras: Yeah. It's a great scene down there. It was really nice working with all the bands down there. We got to make a lot of great friends down there. It was hard to leave, but when I came up here-
Brian: And you came up to DC when?
Andras: It was 2010.
Brian: Wow, okay. Got it. And how long after you got up here did the big Boat Burning events like the 70 guitars or 100 guitars, how long after you got up here did those start?
Andras: We finally started the first one in 2015, and that was at Union Arts DC. Boat Burning was still a reformed improvisational ensemble here in DC. The drummer, our current drummer, Mark Sherman, he joined Boat Burning during that period.
Brian: Yeah. With the event coming up on Sunday, then, describe what's going to happen when somebody goes to this event. What are they going to see? There's a lot of pieces here. What are they walking into?
Andras: Okay. You're going to walk into the 9:30 Club, and you'll see guitars lining the perimeter of the room. So we'll have a group of guitars in front of the stage on the floor, another group of guitars in front of the left bar, another group lining up in front of the right bar. Each of these guitars will have their own amplifiers, and they'll all be facing-
Brian: So you're going to have 100 amplifiers.
Andras: 100 amplifiers.
Brian: You are walking to a wall of sound.
Brian: Holy smokes.
Andras: Then there will be a line of guitars in the back, and then there will be a line of guitars along the balcony all pointing down to the audience.
Brian: Holy smokes. So cool.
Andras: Now, the stage, we're going to be using the stage. The stage will be used for three drum kits. We have a three-drum attack commanded by Mark Sherman. One of the drummers is from Time Is Fire. He also played in Gwar. And then we'll have some cellists and violinists and double bassists. They will be going through the PAs, but all the guitars will be going through their own amps.
Brian: God, what an incredible thing. Now, there's more to this show than just the 100 Guitar event, so talk about some of the other things that are coming. You said there's an opening group that's really special. What else is happening?
Andras: Oh, yeah, wow. The opening group, we are honored to have Trinary Systems from Boston to be coming down. Trinary System is the solo project of Roger Miller of Mission of Burma. Mission of Burma is a famous post-punk band from Boston that had a resurgence in 2000. The band, and Roger Miller especially, has been heroes of mine forever. I went to school in Boston back in the day, so I used to see them when they were a thing in the '80s, so it's quite an honor to have Roger Miller opening for us. Roger also produced our debut EP, so that's a big thing for us. Roger's Trinary System is a very angular, very tough art rock band. I think they're a suitable opening for Boat Burning, and they're going to go on at 9:00.
Brian: Wow. You had mentioned there's some visual stuff going on, too. Talk about Robin Bell and the Bell Visuals.
Andras: Oh, gosh. Yes. We are really pleased and honored to have Robin Bell, the DC-based guerrilla projectionist who has been dogging Donald Trump for the past year. Yes. He's the guy who has been projecting provocative statements on Trump Hotel. Recently, he followed Donald Trump to Japan and harassed him there.
Brian: By projecting things on buildings and stuff?
Andras: By projecting things on ... Not on little things. He's got these gigantic projectors, so these are building-size projections, so he's going to be bringing this-
Brian: And he's bringing that to the 9:30 Club?
Brian: Inside the club?
Andras: Yes, inside the club. Yeah.
Brian: Holy smokes. So it's a visual thing, not just a sonic ... There's 100 guitars and then a guerrilla projectionist. This has the makings for one hell of an experience. Holy cow.
Andras: It will be immersive and kind of a full sensory experience. If you've never experienced a mass guitar show, understand that it's not this wall of noise, even though people say it's all really loud. We never use distortion. We never use any effects. So each guitarist has a really strong, clean sound. But what you get from all these amplifiers pointed at the audience, and you get to wander around in the middle and sort of change the mix just by wandering around, what you get is this incredible sound pressure level, so you feel ...
It's kind of like Sensurround. Remember the old Sensurround movies where you felt this low, double bass rumble? It's kind of like that. You feel these subsonics, and because the guitars are in this very strange tuning, you get these phantom instruments that sort of appear and disappear. So you'll think like, "Whoa, I just heard piccolos." No, there's no piccolos. Or "I just heard bassoons or French horn." No, they're not there. It has to do with the tuning and the-
Brian: It's just the sonic and the tuning.
Andras: Yeah, it's really cool.
Brian: Oh, man. That's incredible. Now, my favorite question to ask before we finish up here is, if you could offer one piece of advice, what would it be?
Andras: Oh, gosh. Do what you love. Life is short and hard. Don't get to the end of your life and realize you could've, should've. You don't know if you haven't tried, and the audacity generally wins out.
Brian: I feel like that's so relevant in today's day and age, too, because there's a lot of questions about everything these days. So "do what you love" is an incredibly simple answer to that question, and yet so relevant.
Andras: Don't wait. Don't wait.
Brian: Andras, I love it.