curtis bay interview
(November 1998)

Out of the blue, one ordinary day last year, Curtis Bay's debut release, "Genuine low", dropped through the letter box. As I bent down to pick up the envelope, the clouds parted and a brilliant ray of sunshine shot down from the heavens, through the 4 storeys above our flat, through the thick curtain that prevents the nosy postman peering at our coats hanging up in the hall, and into my eyes. Out of nowhere, a host of angels appeared and launched into a full-blooded "Hallelujah chorus". I felt the love of the world flowing through my body, the spirit was in me, a surge of universal understanding enveloped my being, my psyche was in tune with Mother Nature and I could see the solution to every problem ever posed...OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I need to hyperbolise to convey a tiny fraction of the excitement generated by the record. Here's what we said in the last issue of Robots... "DJ Krush. If I was searching for a way to sum up the electrogumbo that Curtis Bay has been stewing for the past seven (count 'em) years, I'd go for "DJ Krush". It's the way that Bay is comfortable with dub, techno, hip hop, jazz or any and all combinations. It's the chilled sax vibe on the opener ".38 Joe" where the horn sits on an electro bed. It's the slightly claustrophobic aura that hangs over the whole mix. It's the edge and the soul that lifts these recordings way above the pretenders who merely manipulate other people's beats into a whole different realm of invention and innovation."

Now the second album, "Medium rare", is here and ready to turn the same trick, albeit with a more subdued edge. The initial adrenalin rush that powered "Genuine low", the thrill of picking tracks from a back catalogue of recordings that stretched back to the start of the decade, of mixing genres up like no-one else, of bringing a love of jazz and electronic music together in such a beautiful way, has worn off a little and a more reflective air hangs over this new collection---only culled from the last 4 years this time. Perhaps the next album will be all new recordings, but then he's got so much in the cupboard already and, as Kim King of TongueBath (his label) says, "...he's in it for the long-haul...It took me two years to convince Curtis Bay to put his electro-ghetto techno out; this was mainly because this guy is a jazz cat by default, who wants to be known for his jazz prowess. He only noodles around with electronic music on the side. My cat has the rumpus."

The rumpus? We find out...

Give us some background on Curtis Bay

I've been into playing music ever since I can remember. One of my first memories is playing a make-shift drum kit from telephone books, pots, and pans. I took guitar lessons before I started grade school; and, in elementary school I took up the sax. Somewhere along the way I picked up the piano as well.

One of my first big influences was my junior high music teacher, Calvin Statum; his gospel group backed-up Elvis in the late-1960's. I learned theory from a world-renowned pianist who took two days out of his week to drive up to Baltimore from Washington, DC to teach a small class in my public school. My most recent guru has been Benny Miller, an old jazz cat who played in Duke Ellington's orchestra [circa 1942] and who's been teaching sax since the 1950's.

Other than Calvin, who else influenced you?

Musically a lot of artists from Charlie Parker to Psychik TV to James Brown to The Damned to De La Soul and the list goes on. I've always gone through phases of liking different kinds of music and over the years I've taken influences from each of them. Now I'm at the point where I'm just completely musically schizophrenic.

A lot of the stuff I hear in your music is stuff that I was listening to when I started getting into music---mid 80's hip hop like LL Cool J ("Rock Bottom" is almost "I'm bad"), Rakim (the vocal on "Era of Terra"), Junkyard band (percussion on "Jump break broken" and "Medium rare").

Man, how do you know the Junkyard band!? I'm duly impressed by your depth and knowledge of all genres of music!! I thought only people from the Washington, DC area knew about those guys. Yeah,I guess Go-Go music has had a huge influence on me. "Rock Bottom" was actually inspired by a version of "I'm Bad" done by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.

I know you play the sax in straight bands, when did you start messing with the electronic stuff?

Well now let's see... I've been messing with electronic musical equipment since before disco was called 'house.' My first real keyboard was an ARP QUADRA; an old synthesiser complete with wood panels on the sides. I've been into samplers since about 1987 when they really started to become more affordable. The whole thing about playing electronic stuff and jazz is like entering two different worlds. I've always been into different styles. It's all music to me.

Is TongueBath your first label/the first label interested in you?

TongueBath Music is my first label, but not the first label interested in me. I've turned down offers from other labels; including major labels. Most recently World Domination/Warner offered me a deal for "Medium Rare"; but, in general, I'm just down to keep it as indie as possible. There's a lot of change in the music industry, and being signed to a label doesn't really mean what it used to mean.

Back in 1989, a group I was involved with landed a development deal with Capitol records. They wanted to change the group from a "Soul To Soul" kind of band into a hard rock band like "Living Color." I've been completely jaded on the music industry ever since. Other labels have offered me contracts too; Bill Laswell's Subharmonic label offered me a contract in 1996, for example. And, I've yet to read a contract even worth signing. I think they assume I'll sign something without reading it first. Curtis Bay ain't going out like that.

TongueBath Music is a total punk, "D.I.Y." outfit who doesn't give a rat's ass about stepping on anyone's toes, and will tell you like it is. I like that about them. At the same time they're all business, and no bullshit. Plus, they don't care what I do. I don't have to cater my sound to suit their market. I think this comes from a deep-rooted philosophy they have about it's the music that's the important thing. I think this partially has to do with the fact that Kim King, who started TongueBath Music, comes from a musical upbringing----her grandfather's jazz orchestra used to play for the touring jazz-greats in the 1940s-50s when they passed through Chicago, her dad is a formally trained musician, she studied music formally for years, was a DJ, and worked at prestigious, well-respected college radio stations----she's a scientist/mathematician by day, who's not subjected to pressures of the music industry powers that be. Music, and supporting musicians who are innovative, challenging, and meaningful just happens to be one of her passionate hobbies.

Why wait so long to let all the music out?

I've always kind of considered myself a side-man. Besides, quality takes time.

If quality takes time, how often do you record? and how much is still in the vaults?

Being a musician is a lifetime learning experience and you can never learn it all.I record just about everyday and seem to have an endless supply of tunes. The vaults are pretty full but unfortunately as time goes on several recordings have been lost or stolen or destroyed; but, I'm not one to really look back. It's ever forward and ever changing.

Why do you think that stuff you were doing 4 years ago sounds contemporary now?

I used a time machine.

So who are you listening to now, so that I know what to look out for in 4 years' time?

Well, if people are still listening to guitar-oriented rock music 4 years from now the world should just come to an end. Music should become more complex and cerebral in the future. We've done the punk rock thing to death and now its time for the children of the punk people to piss their parents off.

There's a real urban feel to your records, an agoraphobic tenseness. Is the inner city part of you? and do you try to reflect that in the tunes? I'm thinking of tracks like "RAID", "World of crime", "Gunfire"

I grew up in the city, and have always lived in the concrete jungle. Suburbs and countrysides kind of make me nervous as if there's something missing. There is a certain agoraphobic tenseness to living in the inner city. I think that's a part of me and just comes out naturally in my music.

The new LP is a lot less aggressive than "Genuine low", was that a conscious decision?

No, I pretty much operate on a sub-conscience level. I've been listening to a lot of old-school jazz lately, so that probably has been an influence on me. Most of these tracks were recorded in the past year, so I think there might be more continuity in the overall vibe of this release.

Why do you suppose it happened like that?

I don't know, but I'll be sure to put some more hard-ass shit on my next release.

I'm always intrigued when instrumental records have interesting titles as to how much the song titles mean, or whether they're just something that sounded cool?

Song titles are usually an afterthought; something to describe the mood or feel of the track. Or sometimes a vocal sample will lend itself to the name.

I guess that for you, with a jazz background, the titles are more than just convenient labels for the tracks?

Some of the titles have a personal meaning, and then there are some others I let someone else name. The track "Queen Bee" was named after a friend's cat, while something like "Hell ride" is inspired from from driving around the streets of Baltimore city. Then there's the track called "Hey You, Quit that Dancing up there" which is also the name of a Slim Gaillard song----kind of a nod to one of my favorite jazz personalities. "One Man March" was a take on my experience in Washington, DC during the Million Man March.

What's the story behind ".38 Joe" for instance?

.38 Joe was an actual person who worked with a friend of mine at a courier company. He was an angry, old, miserable wretch who became the butt of many jokes. I guess naming a song after him is kind of an in-joke between me and some friends.

What's a "genuine low"? is there a *false* low? people who pretend to come from the bottom to earn some credibility?

Genuine low is when you have all your stuff ripped off, no money, no job, and the only thing you own in the world is a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. That's what inspired the LP cover. As far as people who pretend to come from the bottom, I'm sure there are people like that, but you know you have to live the blues to play the blues.

Get in touch with Curtis at or with TongueBath at or PO BOX 30755, Oakland, CA 94694, USA. Both albums are still available: "Genuine Low" is $8 (US) $9 (World) and "Medium Rare" $10 (US) $12 (World). Prices include postage.

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