San Francisco Jazz Maverick Idris Ackamoor: “Community Is Everything”

Handmade collage by B.

Idris Ackamoor is an inspiration. He has created and played music since the ‘70s, a veteran of pioneering free jazz musician Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble and founder of Afro-jazz outfit The Pyramids. Idris was one of the first musicians of his generation to travel to, and live and study in Africa in the early ‘70s.

Today he is still playing music and doing more than ever under the umbrella of Cultural Odyssey, a not-for-profit that believes in art as social activism and creating original work that builds artistic, cultural and political bridges across continents, fostering community and change.

Gimmie interviewed Idris from his home in San Francisco and chatted about his latest album Shaman!  as well as his journey and what he learned during his life changing time in Africa. His positivity, enthusiasm and zest for creation, community and life is infectious.

IDRIS ACKAMOOR: I’m doing good today, the sun is shining, it’s a sunny day so that’s good!

Good to hear, Idris. Where did your name Idris Ackamoor come from?

IA: I was born with the name Bruce Baker, but my family’s true name, our ancestral name, is Ackamoor. It goes back in to the 18th century but was changed to Baker in inter-marriage. I was the first to reclaim my great-great-grandfather’s name; his name was Dick Ackamoor. Our family reunions are now called Baker-Ackamoor reunions.

The name Idris, I was in high school in the last part of the ‘60s, from ’64 to ’68. ’68 was of course around the time of Black Power and the return to the understandings of our ancestors in Africa, Black Pride, afro haircuts and dashikis—it was a back to Africa vibe happening for a lot of African-Americans. That was around the time a lot of young people were changing at least a part of their name to more reflect what they were feeling. So, I choose the name Idris.

The meaning of the name Idris means interpreter, righteous and to learn.

IA: Yes. There are several different meanings in different languages, sometimes a name goes across ethnicities and groups. It’s even known in Egypt and there’s a derivative of it in Ireland. When I choose it from where I selected it, Idris was ‘messenger of the moon’.

Why is music important to you?

IA: Music is life. I’ve been playing music since I was seven years old. I consider myself an artistic being, meaning if there was a planet out in space for artist types, I’d be on that planet and I’d be an artistic being because I am surrounded by art. I love art and I have been surrounded by and known music for most of my life. Music is everything to me, it’s also very much a part of my spiritual beliefs. It occupies a lot of my life, even in how I celebrate, how I worship; I worship with music. I conduct rituals on stage with my band, with community, with audience members. Music is about my life.

Through listening to your music, seeing live performance videos and knowing the work you do through Cultural Odyssey, things like spirituality and community seem like they are very important to you.

IA: Absolutely. They are the motivation. The foundation of my work is community, family and healing.

In what way healing?

IA: Music is one of my influences. Albert Ayler, the great tenor saxophone player, he coined the phrase: ‘music is a healing force of the universe’. I think it can be seen; it’s even been documented, music goes back as far as humankind. The music of the breeze going through the trees, the music of different animals and birds. It’s been used in many ancient cultures as a healing, it’s been used in many ceremonies to help with things like childbirth or to help console when a family member has died—music is played a lot like that in Africa and in many different ancient cultures. I know Africa, so I’m speaking from Africa. I’m speaking also here in America with the Indigenous Peoples; they use music for healing and ceremony. Even if you take it to the present day with yourself and myself, a good song can make you feel so much better during the day, it can soothe you, bring back memories. Music is an art form that is really magical. It has many, many different uses. For me it’s one of the most influential artistic disciplines.


IA: Music is also something that is intangible. Music is invisible, we hear it… you can see it written on paper but it’s an invisible medium in a sense, it’s in the air. I have vinyl records that I play over and over and over again like John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and every time you play it, it means something to you but if you look at film… maybe there’s some real filmheads that could see a movie over and over, for me it’s hard to even see a movie two times let alone ten or twenty or thirty… music though is infinite, you can listen to your favourite album or a piece of music you like over and over and you can’t even count the times you’ve listened to it, and you don’t get tired of it.

I do that all the time. I just get obsessed with pieces of music and play them over and over and over and often each time I hear something new. Or they’ll be a little part that I love and I just keep rewinding and listen to it over and over.

IA: [Laughs] You do what I do sometimes. Music affects each of us so differently. That’s the funny thing about music, something that can be your favourite song might not be someone else’s; what determines what is your most loving piece of music? It’s so individual.

In the early ‘70s you went to Africa. I understand that this really changed you; in what way?

IA: Sometimes something happens in life and it can affect your whole life—my trip to Africa was one of those. It still influences me to this day. It was one of those magical trips because I was there close to nine months. I studied music. I experienced community and how African culture worships with music. I learnt how they combine the different art forms, music is combined with dance which is combined with ritual, theatre, masquerade; it’s very rare in Africa that there is only one art form that is displayed for an audience. If a musician is playing then he is probably also reciting poetry or singing or conducting somewhat of a theatre piece. I was just loving the depth of the culture in Africa, the colours of the costumes, the innumerable amount of instruments that I could see and sometimes brought back and collected.

I also underwent ceremonies, healing ceremonies, with traditional African priests or Medicine Men, they call them Juju men or shaman. Shaman!  is the name of my new album. Shamans in Africa are very, very essential. They might be called a traditional healer—they are a religious being.

What type of ceremonies were they?

IA: I didn’t know a lot about Africa before I went, I had a very elemental knowledge from when I was in college; I was a college student when I travelled. I knew a little from my reading, I knew the word Juju. Juju is a religion in some parts of Africa. I knew that I wanted to undergo a ceremony by a Juju priest. When I was in northern Ghana, in Bolgatanga I asked a resident, I told them that I wanted to undergo a ceremony. The resident guided me way out into the bush and that’s where I met my Juju man who put me through a ceremony. The ceremony was called ‘The Washing of the Legs’. He sung and played instruments, he washed my legs in Juju, in the magic, which would then allow me to walk anywhere in the world unmolested, no one would mess with me and I wouldn’t have any problems. He was giving me a spiritual shield to my body. It sounds pretty far out [laughs] but I experienced it!

What is the significance of Shaman! for your new record title?

IA: It’s basically a lot to do with what I just mentioned. ‘Shaman!’ is a title track. It set up my musical theatre piece. The album was composed as a four-act music suite. ‘Shaman!’ begins act one. I put a very contemporary spin on it because… it was basically about a love affair that was broken up, this was a girlfriend I had many years ago. When we were about to break up, I wrote a poem to her. The idea was that… a lot of times men are the ones that do a lot of the heartbreaking but in reality, it goes both ways—basically I got my heart broke. I wrote a poem:

If I was a Shaman I’d run my hands together and I’d reach down into your soul

If I was a Shaman, if I was magical, I’d clap three times, spit in the air

I’d create a whole new world

I’d reach down into your heart and find that buried spark

I’d massage it until it started back up again

I used the concept of a ceremony to reclaim our love we had as a couple.

That’s really beautiful.

IA: I think so too. The poem was inspired by this South African historian who wrote a book about Zulu mythology of the Zulu people. In his book he talks about the ‘fire rites’, the fire rites of penance. A part of my poem talks about how I’m telling you the truth that I really love you.

I’ll grab a white-hot axe and grab onto that axe and burn my flesh to tell you that I love you, I won’t let go.

[Laughs] So, it got pretty deep!

I love that there are so many layers to your music. It always gives me chills.

IA: I’m glad. I really want it to mean something different to each person, I want everyone to take away something that is unique to them. I don’t believe in shoving anything down anyone’s throat, into someone’s ears, I want them to interpret it almost like when you’re looking at an abstract painting; everyone will have a different description of what they’re looking at.

One of the songs on the record that really resonated with me was ‘When Will I See You Again?’ I think partly for me, both my parents have passed away now and when I heard the line from the tracks title it made me think of that. It brought me some comfort and reminded me that I will see them again.

IA: Well, you really picked up on the song exactly as… it’s very interesting that you say that because when I was thinking of composing the song, I was visiting my sister. We were having a conversation of; do I believe in the afterlife? Do I believe in Heaven? She’s quite religious herself, more from the Christian element. She said, “Idris, don’t you want to believe in Heaven? Don’t you want to believe that we will see Mommy again?” There was no argument, of course. Just the way she said it… even though I might not believe in “Heaven” but I do believe in the spirit. I do believe that you meet your parents again in some form or fashion, some spiritual fashion. She was of the same idea that you just mentioned, the idea that we would see some of our loved ones again.

I know there’s no way we can know until we do transition into whatever is next for us from here but it’s nice to think there is something.

IA: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s for sure! Absolutely! It can relate on a lot of different levels because ‘When Will I See You Again?’ I composed it actually before the pandemic… it was almost like forecasting this terrible pandemic. So far, here in America, we have lost close to 200,000 people, they’ve died. There’s particularly resonance to that song now with that’s what we’re facing right now.

The song starts with me talking about mass shootings. I was naming certain cities where mass shootings took place, where they were in schools… a parent can think their child is just leaving the house to go to school… I say in the song: and too soon a loved one parts, sometimes it’s just a blink of an eye. I know when my girlfriend heard it, she had tears in her eyes. Once she listened to it over and over again, she also understood it was about like you said, very positive with the idea that we see loved ones again or that you want to be more appreciative of your loved ones now. It’s a pretty heavy piece.

The whole album goes through so many emotions and moods, everything is really in there. Soul-searching, self-healing, mortality, salvation, love, loss and so much more. It’s very powerful.

IA: Thank you. I’ve spent a lot of years in the theatre. I’ve done a lot of plays and a lot of musical theatre so I brought a lot of that experience, that inspiration and put it into the album. That’s why when you look at it and you look at the album cover it all becomes a piece of art.

Are there ways that songs come to you most often?

IA: It’s another one of those things that are so magical. Obviously, a lot of the music just comes from living my daily life, what I’m experiencing. I’ve been writing, I’ve written enough compositions for my next album. It’s very exciting! A lot of it is coloured by what we are experiencing now, not just the bad parts but also the good. There’s a song that I’m really excited about called ‘Heroes (or Heroines)’, it’s all about the heroes that have played a part in this pandemic. It’s a homage to the nurses and the doctors and the farm workers, everyone that’s put their life at risk helping other people. I find that very, very amazing. I am so appreciative that people would put their life at risk to help other people—that is the height of humanity. It’s a very uplifting piece, it’s almost like angels singing.

There’s another song called ‘Police Dem’. I sit here in my apartment, I’m sheltering in place like a lot of people are, we’re all watching a lot of news, what’s been happening with the police and George Floyd and what just happened in Wisconsin where police shoot a Black man seven times in the back… I have a very afrobeat piece that’s inspired by Fela Ransome-Kuti’s song ‘Zombie’. It’s about soldiers and how they’re automated, you tell ‘em what to do and they do. My song is basically about dealing with the police.

What’s kept you positive this year through everything?

IA: Music. Music and family go hand-in-hand because you can’t move forward without the support of your loved ones, it’s very hard, it’s very difficult, because that’s what you’re living for in some ways. My father is going to be ninety-nine years old in May… obviously this is a time when we’re not able to be with family much so, music is one thing I don’t have to worry about the virus touching [laughs]. Music is keeping me moving forward; composing new music, playing every day—it’s hard to know what I would do without it.

Is there anything that you like to do to challenge yourself creatively?

IA: Yeah, I go back to the beginning when I was just starting out. What I’m doing right now is that I’m going back to a time… I had a teacher that used to play with Charlie Parker, he’s dead now because I know he was old back then… he told me one thing long ago that I’m rediscovering right now, I’m going way back when I began to learn and prove myself now. I found it very interesting because someone can tell you something thirty, forty or fifty years ago and that one thing can be with you your whole life. I’m going back to things that were revealed to me over fifty years ago and getting new meaning out of it. It’s so exciting for me that feeling of beginning all over again. [Laughs] It can be hard but mostly it’s exciting.

You’re a band leader; how do you get such great performances out of everyone?

IA: I think it’s mostly because I am a great band leader. I am a great judge of character. I have a really good understanding; I can hear someone immediately… I think a lot of it transcends music, it goes beyond music, because you can find exceptional, technical musicians, musicians that have studied all of their life but they may be lousy band members. I’ve gone through that a lot, very talented musicians but terrible band members; they’re not good on the road, they’re not good travelling, they don’t know how to support you. I’m much more interested in getting the best performance out of their unique character, sometimes they are incredibly technical and great human beings! I’m not interested in someone who is great technically but not a great human being.

Same! I like having good people around me, it’s important.

IA: Yeah, I think that’s almost the most important thing. This album I am so happy because quite frankly, I love having two women in my band, they are incredible improvisers and great performers but more than anything they’re so supportive, supportive in ways that most men could never be. Women have that motherly instinct in some ways or another kind of instinct that is soft. Sandy and Margaux have made a huge difference. We were on the road for two months before we did the album, being on the road can be very difficult, you’ve got to have a good group of people to live on the road.

We talked about how your trip to Africa changed your life; have you had other life changing moments you could share with us?

IA: In many ways travelling through Europe and performing and this new rebirth of The Pyramids. We were initially only together for 1972 to 1977 and then we broke up and didn’t get back together again for over thirty years. What’s been life changing for me is to be able to play my music all over the world, every place. I was scheduled to come to Australia!

What?! Really?

IA: I was supposed to play a big festival in Melbourne. It was pretty obvious then though that things were getting very bad and they ended up cancelling it. I was so looking forward to coming to Australia. I’ve traveled all my life, as we talked abut going to Africa when I was twenty-one, all the travelling I’ve done particularly the last ten years has been amazingly profound in my life. The audiences that I’ve met and performed for, the people that have booked me have become my friends, it’s been extraordinary for me and mind-blowing epiphany in my life that at this age I can be so regarded and celebrated around the world with my music for what I’m doing.

That connection!

IA: Yeah, it’s hard to think when we were finishing up… we recorded Shaman!  in early November 2019, maybe the 4th to the 10th, we were playing a lot of those songs on tour right before the virus hit Italy. We were in Italy, one of the places where the virus impacted people hard, we were there in July and August, then in Spain. I got back to America around November 21st and a couple months later that’s when all hell broke loose. The tour was magical where we were playing though, the people we’d meet. We played in Turkey; I went to Istanbul for the first time! I’m looking forward to coming to Australia, I love playing the didgeridoo, it’s one of my favourite instruments. I have a portable one that’s about six and a half feet long but it folds down to maybe a foot and a half. For several years that’s been one of the signatures of the band, I come on playing this huge long didgeridoo.

Why do you like to start with that?

IA: Firstly, it’s the visual, because a lot of people in Europe don’t know what a digeridoo is. Secondly, it’s got this deep, deep sound [makes noise] baaaarooooooo! Wooooo! Whooooo! We walk in through the audience. It’s also consistent with the whole idea of community; we start the concert in the audience amongst the people! It’s rare that we begin onstage.

I can’t wait to see you play live.

IA: We sometimes leave through the audience too. We like creating a real community feel.

I know with your organization Cultural Odyssey you have a philosophy of art as social activism; can you please tell us about this? You also spearhead the African American Theatre Alliance For Independence.

IA: When The Pyramids broke up in 1977 I kept playing my own music and growing and in 1979 I founded a non-profit performing arts company – in America there’s a big non-profit community where we have philanthropy, foundations and government funding for the Arts… I founded Cultural Odyssey and it’s sustained me for over forty years as an artist. During that time, I’ve never had a day job. I have a salary, healthcare, a retirement fund, all the things you often think you can only have if you work for a corporation. We’re like a mini opera or a theatre. It’s my myself and my partner, Rhodessa Jones. Our model is: art as social activism.

Her main project is called The Medea Project which is theatre for incarcerated women. For thirty years underneath Cultural Odyssey she’s gone into prisons all over the world, particularly here in San Francisco, she works with incarcerated inmates and ex-inmates to create theatre based on their lives. It’s all original theatre that they write themselves and then they perform it in a major theatre around the world. We even took it to South Africa. We’ve taken it to Italy, performing in Italian prisons.

Another of the projects we do is my Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids, which is the resurrected band. We’ve been touring again for the last ten years.

It’s wonderful that you can do work that you love and help other people doing it.

IA: Community is everything. We had an orchestra out here that was made up of closet musicians, people that weren’t really performers but maybe practiced in their closest or they just like to play. I combined amateur musicians with professional musicians and created the Music Is A Healing Force Community Orchestra. We got funding from a foundation that wanted to have art in non-traditional places, places that don’t usually have live music. We played in United Nations Plaza.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

IA: I’m always thinking of what’s next! I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I’m always thinking of continuing to make music and art and collaborations. I want to make every album I release to be something special and it’s something to bring forth the transforming and the healing that brings meaning to people. For me it’s about quality not quantity. Looking forward!

Please check out: IDRIS ACKAMOOR & THE PYRAMIDS on bandcamp and Cultural Odyssey.

The Units’ Scott Ryser: “Synthesizer: the ability to create or re-create yourself and remix the world.”

We’re always been drawn to bands that are original, highly creative, innovative, provocative, funny and courageous—all the things that The Units are. They’re one of our favourite bands. Starting out life as a multimedia performance art group in San Francisco at the tail end of the ’70s they went on to be known as one of the pioneering synthpunk acts. They were the first punk band in SF performing just using synths and have shared the bill with acts like the Dead Kennedys, Screamers, Dead Boys, Soft Cell, Noh Mercy and Sparks (all bands that we think are pretty neat). We interviewed The Units’ Scott Ryser to give us a little insight into the band, his musical journey and what he’s been up to since activity in The Units’ camp went quiet. It’s also Scott’s birthday today too so, Happy Birthday Scott!!

What in your life do you think led you to music? I know you were in a band when you were a teen with your two younger brothers and some neighbourhood kids called, The Brothers and The Others.

SCOTT RYSER: Music is one of the few things in life that gives me hope that we are not a doomed species…and that we can do something together besides hunt like a pack of wolves.  My experience of the world, and especially childhood, reminds me of the novel “Lord of the Flies” …people congregating out of fear…always on the verge of slipping into some kind of chaotic mob mentality…people yearning to be part of the groupthink instead of nurturing individuality…and the will to power overcoming the will to help each other.

Music has the power to light up dark, lonely and dangerous places…and give a comforting order, feelings and personality to chaos. Playing music made me feel like I could finally communicate…not just with people…but with “life” in general.  When I played music, even as a kid in a small town, it was the only way I could escape the predictable, predetermined, assembly line fate of my future. 

Playing in a band helped me with my social awkwardness…and allowed me to be a part of civilization on my own terms. 

The “Brothers and the Others” was the first band I was in. I was 12, my brother Ken was 11, and my brother Tom was 9. There were two other neighbourhood kids in the band too. At first we were really more of a gang than a band. We all dressed in the same exact clothes and we went everywhere together. We thought it was especially fun to go to a movie theatre and take up almost a whole row of seats. None of us knew how to play, but somehow we figured out three chords and based all of our songs on those three chords. We played a few gigs at our local elementary school…those kind of school dances where a teacher with a ruler makes sure you’re at least 3 inches away from your dancing partner. 

It was great therapy…it made us all feel soooo cool.

Can you tell us about the first piece of performance art that you can remember witnessing? What did it mean to you?

SR: I remember seeing Spaulding Grey do a monologue in the mid ‘70’s just after he’d founded the Wooster Group in NYC. It was in a very small place with about 20 people in the room. What it meant to me, was that you/I could be scared/sensitive/fragile/vulnerable…and if you had the courage, you could still pull off a really great performance. In contrast to someone like Chris Burden (who I also admire) shooting himself, or crucifying himself…sometimes it takes more courage to confront something less obvious…like stage fright…and not trying to hide how vulnerable you are.

It helped me value and even get power from my vulnerability before I’d go on stage. If you’re talented and totally confident in your art, it becomes almost fun to walk onstage like a lamb and go out like a lion.

How did synthesizers manifest themselves in your life?

SR: In 1971, prior to the time Tim Ennis and I started The Units, we were working the graveyard shift at our little town’s lumber mill. The lumber mill was in a horribly desolate little redneck area of northern California…an all day’s ride away from any kind of city…and it seemed like we couldn’t make it through the night without some cowboy or lumberjack taunting us. We’d been out of high school for about a year…and we definitely, without a doubt…had no future. I guess it was that sense of hopelessness and despair that inspired us to sneak in the life-sized plastic baby dolls…and send them down the log assembly line to be sawed and chopped up in the wood chipper.

Our little statement on how we felt people in our culture were similar to identical conveyor belt products. We thought it was pretty funny at the time, but the boss and the rest of the crew didn’t see it our way. We were 19 years old, and we were lumber mill history. It was time to reinvent ourselves. We decided to drive to San Francisco with our lumber mill money, so I could buy this new synthesizer that I had been reading about.

Robert Moog had just introduced a portable synthesizer called the Minimoog, and according to the salesman at the music store, I turned out to be the first one in SF to buy one. I had been reading about the Minimoog, and the idea of being able to create new sounds with it, in new ways, intrigued me.

I was tired of the sound of the “guitar boy band” formula. I wanted to create a new look and a new sound, and the only way I thought I could do that was with a new/different instrument.

Synthesizers seemed like the perfect instrument. You could create new sounds completely from scratch. They were a very D.I.Y., Punk idea to me…because any amateur could play one and sound as good as a 4 handed pro, if they had good ideas. They could automate sounds and riffs that you didn’t have the dexterity to play in real time…speed up and slow down time…in real time! 

Up until the Minimoog came out, synthesizers were too big, heavy and expensive to afford or use. Only big institutions had them. But the Minimoog was portable and affordable. It really democratized electronic music. You no longer had to go to a university to get your hands on one. And you didn’t have to be “taught” how to use it “correctly”. You could pioneer whatever sounds you wanted.

I couldn’t help but extend the idea. Just the name alone was full of possibilities. “Synthesizer”.  The ability to create or re-create yourself and remix the world. One that synthesizes. A wizard. Some definitions of synthesis I like are; “the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole”, and “the dialectic combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth.”  That’s what being a synthesizer means to me. Remixing the life you are given, recreating it as you see fit, and creating a higher stage of truth.

Being able to find some kind of coherent whole, some kind of personal meaning in all this swirling chaos. No wonder we applied it to create synthpunk and to punk up disco and the music industry. It was the perfect instrument to reinvent the status quo.

So it seemed like perfect timing to me, that perhaps the most famous synthesizer player of the time, Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach, Clockwork Orange soundtrack), would take this idea to its extreme…by not only synthesizing his sound…but by synthesizing himself!  And changing his body from a man to a woman.

Carlos’s first public appearance after her gender transition was in an interview in the May 1979 issue of Playboy magazine, a decision she regrets because of the unwelcome publicity it brought to her personal life. It was the same month that we were bashing images of cops on the hood of a Cadillac as our synths played on autopilot.

The (musical instrument) synthesizer itself is defined as a “computerized electronic apparatus for the production and control of sound (as for producing music).” But I’m afraid that definition just doesn’t cut it. A better definition would be: a “computerized electronic apparatus capable of reinventing music”. NEW YORK CITY – 1979.

You’re a self-taught musician. What do you feel are the greatest things about being self-taught?

SR: The best thing about being self-taught, is that you can write songs in a key that you can sing in. It also helps you connect with, and express, your inner feelings. Puts you in touch with your intuition. When I have some strong feeling come over me, I’ll go to my piano or synth and just start playing. I don’t even have a melody in my head when I put my hands on the keys. The melody comes out of my hands…not my head. It’s weird to talk about your body in such an outsider kind of way…but I think there is a body-mind divide…and sometimes it feels really good show your body some faith and respect, and let your mind take a rest. 

What is your most beloved piece of musical equipment? What significance does it have to you?

SR: Definitely my Minimoog. It has taken me on a great adventure and given me a voice that I can use to express myself, in a more understandable way sometimes, than that of my own.

I understand that back in the beginning days of The Units you viewed guitars as a “negative symbol” that represented socially acceptable rebellion for young people. Was there a catalyst for this realisation? Do you still view them this way three decades on? Has things changed?

SR: I don’t have anything against guitars as a musical instrument. But it annoys me that in popular culture, many musicians and the music industry have taken the politics and good intentions Woody Guthrie had with his guitar, the one with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it, and turned the future of it into a commodity and a fashion statement.

The entertainment/advertising industry has homogenized the piss out of guitars until they might as well be the symbol for Coke, Budweiser or Marlboro. The USA media is great at taking confrontation and dissent against the status quo, and repackaging it, and selling it back to the masses as sex, entertainment and fashion. That’s what happened to the guitar heroes…for the most part, it’s all just posing now. I felt like in order to make a new statement of dissent, I would have to accompany it with an instrument that didn’t come pre-tagged as a symbol of sex and entertainment.

I liked watching (The Who’s) Pete Townshend smash his guitar during old footage of ‘My Generation’. But at the same time I thought, “Fuck your generation, Pete, if all it’s going to do is smash guitars on a stage instead of on a symbol of Margaret Thatcher’s head.” I wanted MY generation to take it a step further. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I have nothing against Margaret Thatcher personally, but you know what I mean? There are PLENTY of things to be angry about …why not point a few of them out! If you are so angry that you feel like you have to smash a guitar, why not do it on an image of George Bush! So that’s what we did!

We cut out stacks of life-sized plywood guitars and smashed them on images of George Bush and other corrupt politicians and symbols of authority…that we were projecting on a metal Cadillac car hood that we were using as a movie screen, not only because it sounded like a big gong, it was like smashing the auto industry and the music industry and at the same time saying “We’re tired of all the lies and bullshit you’re selling us.”  (Our synths would be playing at full blast, on autopilot, in the background while we were doing this.)

We weren’t just putting on some show…we were pissed! Our country is made up of an exclusive, white, corporate, good-ole-boys club of rich bastards…fucking the millions of the poor! Raping the earth and trying to strong arm third world countries out of their natural resources. What did you want us to do? Sing ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” like the Beatles?

Oh dear…I sound like such a grouchy old man here…

The guitars were a convenient symbol. That’s all. A lot of people still don’t get it. Including my own kids!

Things have changed over 30 years…but I still prefer guitars being played by people that preceded Woody Guthrie …ok…throw [Bob] Dylan and Neil Young and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson into the mix too.

So much has changed in the last 34 years. Back in 1978, The Units were called the first “all synthesizer” band in San Francisco…and along with Suicide in NYC and The Screamers in LA, we were one of the first all synth bands in the USA. None of us got any airplay on commercial radio stations…and MTV and the internet hadn’t even been invented yet.  It would another 20 years before the word “synthpunk” would even be invented.  The word “Electronica” would not become a music category for another 20 years. Now, in 2013, there are 693 radio stations on iTunes radio alone, that ONLY play “Electronica”, (all synth music).  So as you can see…these days I have very little to rebel against…when it comes to guitars having a monopoly on popular culture.

Who are the artists that you find interesting? Do the artists that move you have any commonalities?

SR: I have a very eclectic taste in music. I like classical music, jazz, folk, blues, funk, reggae, rock, punk…pretty much the best of everything.  I can listen to Beethoven’s 5th followed by Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, followed by Diana Ross and the Supremes, followed by Jimi Hendrix, followed by Jay Retard & Terror Visions, followed by Philip Glass, followed by John Coltrane, followed by Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons. I have poor taste in synthesizer bands …I like them all.

I guess the common thread with bands I like is that they all have to have a lot of originality and a “wow” factor. The musical artists that most influenced my playing and songwriting were probably Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix for my synth chops, Hank Williams and the Beach Boys for my singing,  John Cage, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley, Philip Glass & Steve Reich for experimentation, The Troggs, The Modern Lovers & Iggy Pop for fun.

As to the last part of your question, what I find interesting about these artists is their differences rather than their commonalities.

I’ve read that back in the 70s you didn’t just have problems with popular music but also with our culture in general. You’ve commented that “It seemed like I was swimming in an assembly line river of advertising and products.” I can really identify with that and personally feel the same way today, to me it seems like things have gotten worse in that regards not better. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?

SR: Yes, I think that in some ways it has become worse. The vibe I get from advertising and the world of entertainment is that they’re trying to convince us that you can solve all your problems by getting a shiny new surface image. Now we have all these TV shows we didn’t have back then.  Really popular shows like “What Not To Wear”, “Project Runway”, “American Idol”, etc., etc….Shows that focus on teaching people how to conform to the status quo. How to win the hearts of industry leaders. God forbid you are an “individual” and stray too far from the status quo. Along with a multitude of commercials for “whitening your teeth”, “growing your hair”, “breath fresheners”, “erection helpers” …on and on. It can make you feel like you’re being processed, packaged and being sent down an assembly line.      

Do you think there are any solutions? Where do we go from here? Are there things you do in your life to counterbalance this?

SR: I think this is the solution, blogs like this…people making creative statements, art and music.  It can take as little as a child crying out (as in The Emperor’s New Clothes), “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Correct me if I’m wrong but, I think I read somewhere that you and your wife and band mate Rachel, decided to leave music in 1984? What inspired this change of path? Can you tell us a little about the time that followed please? Was music still a major part of your lives in anyway?

SR: By 1984 the system that we were trying to subvert was feasting on our band. We had signed to Epic, and they wanted to repackage our music as mediocre shiny bullshit. We were trying to record a new album in England and the A&R guy kept showing up and telling us to change our music to sound more like Michael Jackson, or Cyndi Lauper. We had two albums shelved because they weren’t “commercial enough”.  When we toured we were now the opening act for a lot of big bands …which was great, but we weren’t allowed to show our films anymore …which we considered half of our show.

Within this year our manager, who happened to be Rachel’s brother, died of a drug overdose. I got a call from the S.F. police department and a detective told me a former Units roadie was being investigated for a string of murders. Because we hadn’t renewed a deal with a Bill Graham influenced label, The Units had been banned from playing Bill Graham venues on the West Coast. As you can see, all of a sudden, “The Music Business” started to feel really dirty…and playing music was no longer fun or meaningful.

We moved to NYC and started a family and a successful design business…and in retrospect, it turned out to be a really good decision. Between the business and raising two kids we were really busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even though we always listened to a lot of music, it wasn’t until my kids went to college that I’ve had time to get back into playing and recording music.

You’ve been married for over 30 years, congratulations! What’s it been like to share your journey with Rachel? What does she bring to your life? How does she inspire you?

SR: My life with Rachel has been wonderful and exciting since the first time I laid eyes on her. I couldn’t be more fortunate.  You’re lucky if you find someone you love, but it’s even better to share your life with someone that’s a partner, a best friend, and someone that will take risks, back you up, and collaborate with you on everything you do. I can’t imagine how different my life might have turned out, without her.  She balances all my weaknesses and inspires me to take risks and be creative.

Could you tell us about the work that Rachel does with Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School?

SR: Rachel is the executive director of Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School.  It is an academic enrichment program, mostly serving low-income black kids living in the projects, in the Downtown Brooklyn area. It’s a free program that provides the academic support that these children need to stay on grade level (compared to their more affluent peers). The program also teaches the kids art and music…and how to swim. You know how most kids hate school. Well, it’s unbelievable how much these kids love it.

Your son, Sam, is in a punk band called Crazy Spirit. Have you been to one of his shows?

SR: Yes, I’ve been to a few of his shows…even filmed them. They’re very popular here in NYC, and have toured the USA and Europe. All the guys in the band are artists as well as musicians. They screenprint all their record covers and inserts, posters and t-shirts. They are very DIY and punk.  They’re great.

My 18 year old daughter Nina is also in a band and has a 7” EP out called “Nina Ryser – September” that was put out by a record label in Mexico. Unlike me, Nina can actually read and write music for other instruments.  Needless to say, I’m very proud of both of them and we have lots to talk about.

I know that your style of humour is a little darker/has a dark bent than most; what’s something that’s amused you lately?

SR: I just saw this picture of former president George Bush standing in front of some paintings he did of dogs…poodles and such.  I always got a good laugh out of what an idiot the guy was as he was destroying our country…but I found this especially funny.  Like Hitler’s paintings…what is it with these guys. It just makes no sense to me…it’s funny and frightening…all at the same time.

Have you ever had a really life changing moment that you could share with us?

SR: I’ve always had bad social phobia…fear of being in groups of people. One time I was in this new college class at SF State University…and all the students had to sit in a big circle…and one by one…tell the class your name and what you wanted from the class. I was so anxious, that when it came to my turn to speak, I had an out-of-body experience. My consciousness actually floated up to the ceiling and I could look down at myself and the classroom. “I” was up on the ceiling, invisible, calmly looking down at this body that used to be mine.  Obviously, it’s a weird feeling to look at humanity as if you are viewing it from the outside.  I wrote the song “i Night” that night, quit the class the next day…and started the Units. 

What does The Units mean to you now?

SR: Pretty much the same as it did in the beginning.  I never meant for The Units to be a performance group, or a band, or a film.  To me the important thing about it is just the idea of it.  The concept.

I’m happy that after all these years, there are some people around the world that still find The Units compelling.

From documentary “Seven Deadly Synths” by Merrill Aldighieri.

For you, what was the most memorable show that The Units played and why does it stick in your mind?

SR: It was a show we played at the Geary Theatre in 1980. There was always a certain amount of pushing & shoving, crowd diving, spitting and whatnot going on at punk shows back then…but sometimes it got out of hand…especially from out of town kids that didn’t know the limits. I saw Klaus from the Dead Kennedys hit a guy over the head with his bass once because the guy just wouldn’t stop fucking with him…and I saw one of the guys in the Toiling Midgets slam a guys face on the stage for the same reason. At this show at the Geary Theatre we were on a 4 foot high stage, which was unusual compared to other punk venues. The place was big and it was packed, and there were 3 guys in the crowd that kept fucking with Rachel…throwing stuff at her. I got so mad, that right in the middle of the song, I ran and jumped off the stage and on to them as if I were jumping on to a horse. My legs went around their three heads and we all crashed down onto the floor with me still on top of their necks…I’m sure they were stunned…and I started punching them. The horrible thing, that I thought about later, was how good it felt. I had never felt so good…and that is a horrible thing…to realize you have that kind of killer instinct in you. I got up and jumped back on the stage and we finished the song and the rest of the set. Afterwards I was quite worried that I might have really hurt them…and shaken that there was a part of me I had not known about.

Lastly, what’s something other than music that you’re passionate about or would like to raise awareness of?

SR: I’ve always been passionate about politics. I try not to get too discouraged about how long it takes for things to change. But I’ve seen things change in my life so I still hold out hope and continue to vote. I’m happy that we actually have a black president now, and for the advances in women’s and gay rights. I’m glad how the internet has had a democratizing effect throughout the world.

What bothers me most right now is the disparity and inequality of opportunity that happens to children that come from poor families vs. those that come from wealthy families. Because it just perpetuates the status quo…indefinitely.

I really see it through the work Rachel does with her Horizons program. It’s really in your face here in NYC and Brooklyn…kids of millionaires living a few blocks away from poor kids from the projects.

The wealthy kids have tutors, coaches, private lessons, summer programs and usually two parents that are both highly educated, into the arts, read to their kids, and expect their kids to be highly educated. The wealthy kids go to private schools with dedicated college counsellors that have personal connections with the admissions people at Ivy League schools. The kids from the projects have almost none of these opportunities.

I think it’s a crime that public school kids have so few opportunities to do art or music or to learn how to swim. It amazes me to see how empowered a kid becomes when they learn how to swim, or when they do a painting that their parent puts up on the wall, or play some music, or do a dance where everybody applauds for them. No wonder that kids who have none of these opportunities to feel self-confident and empowered end up feeling bored and disinterested at school.

Obviously, the more your parents care about your education, the better you will do.  But it’s almost impossibly hard for a single working parent with no money to offer much help, no matter how much they care.

The Horizons program is funded entirely by volunteer donations and private grants. I just wish the city, state and federal government would lend a hand in funding programs like this for low-income kids.

Please check out: The Units. Scott Ryser’s new solo work.