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Forward-gazing musicians look back

by Cory Frye

KATY CASPROWIAK 

Minus in 1999, from left: Mark France, Dave Trenkel, and Henry Franzoni.

Musically, Dave Trenkel and Henry Franzoni don't rummage through the past like last year’s garbage. They’ve built careers from looking ahead, wandering where they’ve yet to travel. When’s the next gig? What’s the next project, the next sound? Where do I go from here?

Today, however, they wrestle assorted monsters. The first, natch, is one that disturbs us all: an ever-present year-old pandemic that steals feature leads, makes men reflective, and drives them into archives for projects. (Franzoni has spent the better part of a year making his expansive back catalog available on Bandcamp. Gaw 'head; see you in 2062.) The other is a hounding music press obsessed with anniversaries, and the men face at least two this year, both within the same band.

So, like good sports, they don old hats and dive right in. 

Those of us blessed with long college-town memories recall carefree ’90s evenings of explorative jazz at ye olde Java Rama on Monroe Avenue. Corvallis trio Minus stood with the best: guitarist Mark France, Trenkel on bass, Franzoni on drums. Retrospectively, they weren’t with us very long — not even a decade — but they helped blaze a trail for both avant-garde and structured music in its lifespan. In 2021, we commemorate the trio’s only albums: the 25th anniversary of an eponymous debut and the 20th anniversary of Dark Lit, their worthy farewell. 

Trenkel’s response to these milestones, of course, was to unearth a long-lost third Minus project recorded in 2000 but left in catacombs until last month. It introduces a momentary fourth member into an astonishing sojourn under the imprimatur Minus/Plus. Of course, this lineup addition happens to be none other than late bass god Fred Chalenor, an old Franzoni associate and band friend captured in a rare free-jazz milieu. So somehow, these guys continue to blow minds two decades after delivering their final note. 

What became Minus took shape at Oregon State University in the summer of 1988, when returning student Trenkel met the incoming France at a week-long jazz workshop led by then-Corvallis-OSU Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Mike Curtis. They reunited that fall in the school’s jazz program, where new Director of Jazz Ensembles director Rob Blakeslee, a Portland-area free jazz trumpeter with credits extending back to the ’70s with Vinny Golia, encouraged his charges to chart more improvisational realms. France and Trenkel took to that spirit immediately and discovered a musical kinship. 

The two began playing together in more defined band settings in the early 1990s; Trenkel occasionally sat in with France’s trio, Tricycle (bolstered by drummer Cory Oace and bassist Eric Grutzmacher). In 1991, Trenkel co-founded a progressive/punk trio called Das Neonderthrall with Franzoni and guitarist Eldon Hardenbrook. When Hardenbrook couldn’t make a live gig one night, France substituted, essentially resulting in Minus’ first-ever performance, though no one knew it at the time. There was even a fleeting trio called Shovedevil, where Trenkel and France joined violinist Eyvind Kang (who’d later collaborate with John Zorn and Secret Chiefs 3) to welcome a new year. The collective later contributed tracks to a 10-inch compilation, The Seventh Sign of Stress, shared with Neonderthrall and Corvallis alt-savage pioneers Arcweld

Minus began in nascent form in the winter of 1993, then became real when Das Neonderthrall dissolved following a 1994 John Henry’s gig in Eugene.

“We’d started out playing compositions that Mark had written and I had written, plus some things that Henry and I had written as part of Neonderthrall,” Trenkel says. “Over the first few months we were playing together, as we’d get together and try to rehearse, we would end up improvising. We would play a tune for five minutes, then improvise for an hour. Eventually we stopped playing the tunes and were just improvising.” 

They discovered a near-instinctive musical language born from years of collaborating in other forms. They could fly in blind and fight their way out. 

“It was just one of those things that when it worked, it just felt very intuitive to improvise together,” Trenkel says. “We had a shared vocabulary. I don’t recall going into any of these things with a road map. We started tape and went for it wherever it would go." 

With that free approach, Trenkel, France, and Franzoni convened at Dave Storrs’ Califas studio in Corvallis (Trenkel had helped Storrs assemble the 8-track space in his garage, where he’d wax crucial singles by Arcweld, The Miscreants, Lazyboy, Lorax, and Lupo, among others) on May 21, 1994, to record their opening bow. Since he was busy playing, Trenkel recruited a friend, Marko Field, to produce the day-long session. Later Minus fattened the track list with a pair of impromptu cuts woven live at Java Rama before Christmas. 

"It was relatively rare that we recorded any of our live performances,” Trenkel says. “At the time it was a lot harder to record than it is now. Java Rama gig was recorded direct to a two-track DAT. [Engineer/OSU Media Lab friend] Jared Boone came by and made sure everything was hooked up. We rough-mixed live to DAT in the room and just kind-of guessed how stuff would turn out. It actually turned out well. We just recorded it for the sake of recording it.” 

Two of those performances, later titled “Threading the Needle” and “Skraelings,” seemed to flow nicely with their studio counterparts, so they were added. Trenkel recalls that “Permuter” initially ran an entire reel of 8-track tape, so he winnowed it from 22 minutes to its final 15-minute form. Memories of any other trims, tricks, or leftovers have all been lost to the ages, so an expanded reissue with multiple bonus tracks is likely off the table. 

Minus was eventually released May 23, 1996, two years and two days after the bulk of it was recorded. 

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“I mixed all of that stuff and put it on cassette,” Trenkel says. “For several months I was just driving around and listening to it in my car. I would find moments of it that I liked and make notes.” 

Then, in the mid-'90s, he built his first digital studio in the basement of his Seventh Street House. He began teaching himself to mix and edit 4-track digital audio with an early version of ProTools, using Minus as his homework. Initially, he planned a standard cassette release. But technology was quickly making other options possible. 

“At the time I was working at the media lab at OSU, a computer lab run by both the art and computer science departments,” he says. “It was for people to cross over between graphic design, music, computer science, and multimedia. They got one of the first CD burners, like a standalone CD burner. We’d worked on editing the Minus tracks and had come up with a release for it. We were going to put it out on cassette because it was the 1990s and that’s what you did. Nobody could afford to put out vinyl. But I took the mixes in and transferred it to CD. 

“Then I took that to our next band practice. We were sitting around, listening, and saying, ‘There’s no way this is going to sound this good on cassette.’ So we started looking into the possibility of putting it out on CD and we found a pressing company in Seattle that would make 500 copies for $1,200.” 

Minus was the inaugural release under the New and Improv label, which Trenkel and his partner Melissa Hartley, a KBVR jazz director, initially established to curate concerts. The album’s novelty assured distribution through Forced Exposure, Wayside Music, and New Music Distribution Service, reaching receptive ears as far away as New Zealand. 

“That record got about the best distribution of anything that I’ve done,” Trenkel says. “It was relatively unusual for a band to put out independent CDs at that time. We were a fraction of an inch ahead of the curve. This was a time of the early John Zorn stuff, the Knitting Factory scene, Elliott Sharp. Our first record kind-of fit in with that. There was a place for it and distribution networks for it. It paid for itself probably faster than anything I put out.” 

Local gadflies received the release with wonder. “It’s the kind of art noise that introduces a kind of existential haze to your driving and makes a cop more likely to pull you over,” Snipe Hunt gaped that spring. And 25 years later, it’s still a trip (you still shouldn’t operate vehicles while under its thrall), a scalding collage of whaps, skronks, shivers, warbles, whirs, and polyrhythmic genius sculpting a jagged horizon that remains forever distant, unreachable; imagine the Melvins attempting Miles DavisOn the Corner after hearing six minutes of it in art class. 

“Nobody really caught up with us,” Franzoni says today. “Not that we were in the future or anything, but we made a musical statement that is still unique. The elements we combined on that record really haven’t been combined by other bands. We didn’t set a trend. I was becoming who I am, and it’s evident on that record."

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The next two years saw Minus on a packed trajectory, performing live through the Pacific Northwest and preparing what would become their second album, Dark Lit. This time, however, they set aside their improvisational tendencies to work up solid compositions, often pulling their bases from longer jams. France proved crucial during this gestation, arriving at rehearsals with a cassette recorder to capture, study, and isolate their most promising parts for inspiration. Often the others didn’t know he was recording, and he’d surprise them years later by playing back these flashes of potential with his own additions. 

‘Acidflesh’ was from one of the first times we played together,” Trenkel recalls. “It might have been the first time we got together and played before doing the first record. We came up with this thing where Henry is playing this slow hip-hop groove and I was playing this fuzz bass four-note line. When Mark brought the tape back several years later, he'd written a melody line over the top. He had all of these chord changes that went over this simple bass line. He had brought it back as a fully formed piece based on a snippet of something he’d recorded years before. A lot of our stuff developed that way.” 

The ca.-1998 Minus found itself more often in a jazz-hungry Seattle than in jazz-starved Oregon, so the band set up at the latter city’s Flora Recording & Playback, operated by Tucker Martine, late of The 4 + 1 Ensemble featuring Wayne Horvitz, Eyvind Kang, and Reggie Watts, and eventual producer and engineer on albums for The Decemberists, R.E.M., Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, Loch Lomond, and Rosanne Cash. Trenkel describes the tiny space as a museum-showcase-ready array of vintage analog equipment. Minus spent five days in August setting and tracking the album to tape before bringing it back to Corvallis, where Trenkel and France prepared it for release over the next two years, adding turntable wizardry from then-DJ Scratch ’n’ Sniff (known in mortal form as drummer Jd Monroe) and other effects. 

Into that long, extended gap steps Mr. Fred Chalenor. He and Franzoni had collaborated on a number of projects after first meeting in the mid-1970s, during Chalenor‘s stint in Portland’s Zanzibar. Franzoni qualifies today as one of modern jazz’s elder statesmen (he jokes that he goes all the way back to the late bop era, an early fan of Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Antonio Carlos Jobim), first studying the drums at age 4 under Joe Morello, then fresh from his success on Brubeck’s landmark "Take Five." 

“Joe did a couple of things at this lesson I’ll never forget,” Franzoni recalls. “One thing he said was, ‘If you want to work, you have to have a good roll.’ Then he proceeded to do his thing where he’d take one hand and he’d start out really slow. Then he just closed it down with one hand. He was playing this one-handed roll that was so amazing you couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll really have to practice to be able to do that.’ Now, at 64, I realize he’s one of the only human beings that can ever do that. He set this impossible goal for me right away at age 4. I took that to heart, though, and I’ve always had a good roll. He was very pragmatic about it.” 

Later, Franzoni studied with drummer Carl Wolf, who, upon completing his lessons with the young artist at age 17, said, “I’ve taught you everything you need to know to be able to teach yourself everything you want to learn,” parting words Franzonui’s embraced as gospel ever since. 

The learning process continued into adulthood, when Franzoni and Chalenor formed the first incarnation of Face Ditch in 1979; a second would attract such fans as Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, later of Soundgarden. (In fact, Cameron would join Chalenor in the Tone Dogs and appear on their 1990 debut, Ankety Low Day. Franzoni would take his place shortly afterward.) The two later founded Caveman Shoestore with God Wads vocalist Elaine di Falco. Shortly before Minus formed, the two also worked in Boodlers with multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp. Over a 40-year period, despite the inevitable dismantling of their respective outfits (Chalenor, Franzoni says, operated under the axiom “After three years, rot sets in”), they always found each other, ready to play again. 

Chalenor was familiar with the first Minus album; he’d even invited Trenkel to stand in for Soft Machine legend Hugh Hopper for a Portland performance of Caveman Hughscore, a Tim/Kerr label disc recorded by Caveman Shoestore with Hopper in its ranks. They opened for Pere Ubu at Berbati’s Pan. “That was an interesting night,” Trenkel recalls. “It was great for me because Hugh Hopper’s tunes are very complex, but they would be frameworks for these amazing fuzz bass solos. But Fred knew all the amazingly complex parts of the tunes. My place was to do the crazy out fuzz bass solos over the top, so I had the easy part.” 

At the time, Chalenor was between projects. He’d recently been released from Pigpen, a band he’d launched with Wayne Horvitz, and was looking to try something different, something with more freedom, and Minus offered that opportunity.  

“He didn’t have much of an outlet for that in the bands he was playing in at the time,” Franzoni says. “What he really wanted to do was free improvisation. He was way more interested in that than in songs.” 

So back Minus went to Seattle on April 22, 2000, meeting Chalenor at Scott Colburn’s Gravelvoice Studios, in the Ballard neighborhood. For eight hours the quartet jammed, producing 14 tracks, Chalenor handling main bass duties on a Chapman Stick. Trenkel mostly supported and triggered drum machines and synthesizers. He notes that on Track 1, recorded before France had finished setting up, Chalenor’s handling everything but drums and drum machines, his sonic pallet extraordinary. 

“I remember that it was really easy,” Trenkel says of the sessions. “It just felt like we plugged in our instruments and went. Fred didn’t play bass as much as he played an instrument that happened to be the bass. He had this enormous vocabulary. It wasn’t about fulfilling the bass player role in the band, though he could do that fabulously. But he could also be an amazing soloist and improviser.” 

“That was like 1,000 jams I’d had with Fred,” Franzoni adds. “That was something that Fred and I did in the privacy in our own home. When I listen to it now, it really reminds me of all this time I spent with Fred going nuts like that and playing. Some of it was conscious in that Fred and I worked out a thing over many, many years. I would play the bass part on the toms and Fred would play midrange and high end. He would have to play the melody and the solos, and I would keep the bass part on the drums. That was one of the ways that we worked together. Working with Minus, that was kind-of the case on that first tune. Fred just takes off into Fredland where he’s some kind of Martian acrobat. He plays metaphysically. 

“Fred is joy on that whole recording. He’s totally himself.” 

The four discussed the session’s release, planning it to follow Dark Lit. There was even talk of shows to support it. Sadly, that was never to be. When its second album was finally released on May 19, 2001, Minus was nearing the end. 

Part of its dissolution can be traced to the sturdiness of Dark Lit’s tracks. Despite its still-astounding sounds, the material was overly familiar by then, too familiar for a band without imposed boundaries. Luckily, they’d recorded the songs at their peak, but two years later, it was a different story. Also, Trenkel now feels he'd seized too much creative control on the production side and locked Franzoni out. Minus played a Dark Lit release party, then acrimoniously parted ways. 

“I was pushing that record through because I put so much work into it,” Trenkel says. “We had kind of come to a place where we had run our course and I was pushing to keep it happening, to get that record out. I’ve come to understand that I can be something of a dictator when it comes to being involved in the recording process. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff where I forced decisions through that didn’t fit with the collaborative nature of the band. It was easy for me to make the decisions because I was mixing the record and I was the label. 

“We broke up as a band, in my estimation, the night before the record release party when Mark and I went to Portland. We picked up the 1,000 copies. We went out to Henry’s place near St. Helens to rehearse for the party. He looked at the CD and I realized he had never seen the artwork. There were song titles he wasn’t consulted on. There’s a lot of the mix process he wasn’t consulted on. 

“I think he got angry about that. And I fully understand why he would. Instead of rehearsing for this big show, we stayed up all night arguing between the three of us. We slept a few hours and then drove down to Corvallis for the show. We were all pissed at each other. I’ve heard from people afterward that it was actually great. But at the end of the night, I was done.” 

"What I remember is that we were losing our enthusiasm for our songs,” Franzoni adds. “They were becoming more repetitive, and we were all going through the motions. We were all so burnt on each other." 

Weirdly, neither feels as critical of Dark Lit 20 years later. They’ve objectively separated themselves from the men who made the music and can hear it as an audience. There’s still so much to admire. Franzoni can’t help but needle his younger self on “Piss Ankle Brothers,” equating his crashes to a “clumsy Jack DeJohnette in a rock context,” but adds, “It has the right feeling.” (And it does, smashing violently against a roaring shore). “Acidflesh” burns over samples, burbles, and a cool France guitar line reminiscent of a downtown club before flowering into a white-hot solo. He also cites “Melvohol” as an ultimate tribute to the Melvins at their raw, restless, snaggled best. “I can see how those Minus records fit into my entire body of work,” he says. “I became aware of what I was on the drums.” 

Both men now find themselves in the odd position of promoting an album they recorded nearly 21 years ago that nevertheless, like the rest of their work, pulsates with an insistent freshness. But it wasn’t easy to rescue from its now-primitive CD-R technology. The dizzying process took six months of getting new programs to coax information from old programs and lining multiple tracks at the correct speed. (Wanna read about it? Trenkel explains the laborious puzzle below.*) 

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“I wouldn’t have gotten into this record if it hadn’t been for the quarantine,” Trenkel says. “I was aware these tracks existed and were sitting on my shelf, but in a normal year I wouldn’t have taken the time to work on them because I would have had dozens of other projects. It gave me the time to get the fucking tracks loaded onto the computer, mix them, and get them out. I think there is something valuable to that.” 

Its value also stands as a monument to Chalenor, who succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease on June 23, 2018 at the age of 62. He left an enduring legacy that included such luminaries as Robert Fripp, Wayne Horvitz, Elliott Sharp, Curlew, The Walkabouts, and even Soundgarden, with whom he earned a gold record after cowriting “Limo Wreck” on 1994’s Superunknown. (Both the band and its ex-drummer, Matt Cameron, now of Pearl Jam, contributed to a GoFundMe devoted to Chalenor’s medical expenses and promoted it across social media. “Soundgarden is so good,” Chalenor says. “They tried to help us so much. Matt Cameron ponied up. I was blown away.”) 

“I’m just glad it’s out and that people can hear it,” Trenkel says. “I’m particularly glad that that aspect of Fred’s playing is out there, because that’s the most important part of this. Fred must have been on 50-100 albums in the course of his career, but the average person doesn’t know him. He’s one of these guys who was respected worldwide.” 

“He was a unique musician,” Franzoni adds of his old friend. “I find myself completely affected by his absence. I see now that people had tremendous respect for him. He was one in a million, really, as musicians go. He was relentlessly trying to make musical progress. 

“He was my first marriage. Fred and I had a unique relationship, a lifetime of chasing the notes. Music was the most important thing to us; we were pure musicians seeking the coolest music possible. And we wanted to play all the cool music in the world. That took a long time to do, and over 42 years we played a lot of different things. But we tried to play all the different music in the world.” 

As it turned out, Minus did too. What they left us over two (now three!) albums will never be matched. 

TOUR THE NEW AND IMPROV DISCOGRAPHY

EXPLORE THE WORKS OF HENRY FRANZONI

FRED CHALENOR CREDITS

* Dave Trenkel on rescuing Minus/Plus:

“I found the recordable CDs of the rough mixes that we had done in 2000. That was around the time Henry was putting out a lot of the stuff that he had worked on with Fred, including both official releases like the Shoestore material and live gigs. I found these mixes and I thought, ‘These should really be part of his archive.’ I sent them to Henry, who said, ‘Let’s put this out immediately.’ But I felt they were badly mixed. They were very raw sounding, with a lot of distortion. 

“As it turned out, they were all at the wrong speed because they’d all been transferred at the wrong sampling rate. They were all a little sharp and a little too fast. I dug further, finding a box with the initial CD-R archives that had all the multitrack sessions. I was able to load those onto the studio computer. Even that in itself was a headache because I had mixed all of these things in an early version of Logic, and I had archived them under the Mac operating system onto CD-R at the time. I’m still using Logic, I’m still using Macintoshes. Those CDs will not load on a current Macintosh, so I had to go in using the Unix command line interface. 

“I was able to mount the discs on that and move them onto my studio drive, so then I had the raw .WAV files of all the 16-track sessions on my studio computer. That’s when I found out they’d been transferred at the wrong speed. So I had to sample-rate convert them. Since ADATs are an 8-track medium, they only record eight tracks at a time, but they will synchronize with each other. We had recorded everything in 16-track, so there were two ADAT tapes running parallel with each other for every one of these tunes. We had tracks 1-8 on the first and tracks 9-16 on the second. There was nothing to synchronize the eight tracks from A to the eight tracks in group B because they had been transferred at different times.

Because I couldn;’t load the initial Logic sessions in which they had been synchronized, there were just these blocks of sound that didn’t line up. 

“But fortunately, the close mics on the drums were in the first eight tracks and the two tracks of the drum overheads were in the second set of eight tracks. So I could find where the kick-drum hits were in the overhead mics and I was able to hand-synchronize those with the initial tracks. It took me about three weeks just get the material on my computer in a place where I could listen to it and mix it. And then, when I could, it was just like, 'Wow. This stuff sounds great.’”