CHASM
Wood Wind & Skin
(Sticks And Stones Music)

 

Back in early 2001, almost 20 years ago, mwe3.com featured an album review of Panorhythmica, the new album at that time by the band called Chasm. Now, as then, the Southern California based Chasm centers around the combined talents of Mark Esakoff (acoustic and electric guitars, luitars, ukulele, marimba, vocals and bass) and his co-founding partner Michael Whipple (flutes, keyboards, bass, drums, percussion, backing vocals). Lo and behold in early 2020, Chasm returns to the music world with a superb new album called Wood, Wind & Skin. Titled after the sounds of the instruments featured on the first Chasm album back in 1995, the 13-track Wood, Wind & Skin features a wonderful array of sounds that covers just about every genre of instrumental music under the sun—including New Age, World Music, soundtrack, rock, progressive, jazz fusion, bossa-nova and flamenco too. Incredibly diverse in scope and dimension, Wood, Wind & Skin closes the album out with a memorable vocal track called “The Silence Between The Words”—a symphonic like pop number that underscores Mark’s intrigue with the Kinks and Bowie-esque rock. Additional string and horn arrangements, not to mention expert engineering, by Michael Whipple gives Wood, Wind & Skin a striking depth that sounds as if there’s a full band playing. Mark’s guitars and Michael’s flute, keys and drums shines throughout the album and there’s hardly an off note, start to finish. Based on that 2001 album alone, one could have easily predicted more greatness from Chasm, yet, in a case of better late than never, Wood, Wind & Skin is a real masterpiece of sonic delights. www.chasm-music.net



 

mwe3.com presents an interview with
Mark Esakoff and Michael Whipple of
CHASM



mwe3
: How has the Chasm sound changed since the 1990s era and how did you approach Wood Wind & Skin to bring the Chasm sound in to the 2020’s? The band is 25 years old this year so is Wood Wind & Skin kind of a landmark return to form that brings the best elements of the past into the now?

Mark Esakoff: For starters, when Mike and I tossed around the idea of making a new Chasm album I didn’t have any new material for it. This was a backward approach compared to how our previous albums began. I would always start with a batch of songs I was excited about before floating the idea for a new record. Mike said if I’d write enough songs, he’d do another Chasm album. And so we scheduled when we’d start recording. What this did was put me on a deadline to come up with the songs. All I had at the time was a couple hours of riffs and licks I’d recorded over the past few years. I went back through them and found what I needed for the music that’s now on Wood, Wind & Skin. These new tunes were written while trying to recapture the feeling from our 1995 self-titled first album Chasm.

Michael Whipple: The first Chasm album was recorded on one inch Ampex tape… things have changed! There is a plasticity, a democracy, to digital recording that has enabled us to do things today that we couldn't have envisioned, or paid for, back at the turn of the last century. I think we've embraced more textures on this recording: it harkens to, and stays with, Mark's original sound concept, but I've managed to corrupt it a bit more on Wood, Wind & Skin.

mwe3: Why was there such a long wait since the Lovejoy Sessions album in 2009 and how is Wood Wind & Skin different in scope from The Lovejoy Sessions and the other Chasm albums?

Mark Esakoff: The long wait was not intentional, but a result of a few things. The band we were performing Chasm live with Brad Strickland / guitar, Arne Anselm / bass, Aaron Winters / drums, took a hiatus around 2012. It just kind of naturally happened for no particular reason I can remember. Not having this outlet to write new songs for, my creativity slowed down. And then time just slipped by. In 2014 Mike and I started making a new Chasm album. But as we got into it we realized it wasn’t working and ultimately it turned into my solo project. Wood, Wind & Skin is different in scope from our other albums mainly because of the way it was created. Our first three albums were recorded at Audioworks Recording Studio in Glendale, California, with a sound engineer named John Perez. Mike and I co-produced the first two of those, CHASM (1995) and Panorhythmica (2000). On the third album, Bamboo Blue (2008), I was the producer. All the band members we were doing live Chasm shows with played on this record.

The fourth album, The Lovejoy Sessions (2009) was just the two of us. Mike was the producer while he also engineered and recorded it at his studio in Portland, Oregon. This album actually started out as my solo project, but then morphed into a Chasm album. Wood, Wind & Skin went through yet another process. Mike and I co-produced it while he was living in Oregon and I in California. He made two trips to So Cal to track my guitar parts. I in turn made two trips to Southern Oregon for more tracking and to be there for the final mix. My marimba parts were recorded at my home studio by sound engineer John Wilson. The process of Mike setting up the arrangements in advance and me later coming in on the back end of the production to add my “derangements” to the arrangements was something we had not done before.

Michael Whipple: Lovejoy was my first attempt at engineering and producing Chasm. I was ill equipped and pretty unprepared. It was quite a learning experience. I think the main difference, in scope, energy, and concept, is the acoustic drums. On Lovejoy, I tried to create a rhythmic bed of electronic percussion sources for Chasm, and I think it works to a certain degree, but having an acoustic drum kit at the heart of the music was always what the music called for, and now I have the space and time to track drums.

mwe3: Was “Praying For Rain”, the leadoff track on Wood Wind & Skin, written during the California drought and fires in 2019? It has a kind of mournful feel to it and what kinds of flutes are featured on that track?

Michael Whipple: The basic track for "Rain" was a small slice of a long improvisation captured at Mark's place in Ventura. We both, as residents of the West, have been greatly affected and moved by the enormity of the wildfires, both in California and in Southern Oregon. The feel of the track, I think it’s more solemn than mournful, but I get where you're coming from with that, it happened organically. The ephemeral, real-time combo of baritone acoustic guitar, and a tunable, metal slit drum of mine called an Ideopan. The flute is a tenor recorder, checking off both "wood" and "wind" boxes. It was a gift to me from Mark decades ago…

mwe3: What nylon string and steel string / electric guitars are played on Wood Wind & Skin sessions? I was also thinking that surf-rock fans would like this album, especially the track “Look At Her Glow”. It has a kind symphonic surf edge, even without electric lead guitars.

Mark Esakoff: I played a Giannini Craviola classical guitar, Alverez baritone guitar, an early 1900’s German luitar (maker unknown), a Luna concert ukulele, and a Fender Stratocaster, Frankenstein’d from pre and post CBS guitar parts. “Look At Her Glow” is actually an instrumental of a song that originally appeared on my solo album. What Mike did with arrangement on this version is really cool! I hope surf-rock fans like it. I don’t think there was any conscious effort to make it a surf-rock thing.

mwe3: Is “Sideways Sunshine” the more upbeat side of Chasm? Is there a kind of World Music or even Latin element in play on that track? I like the title, what does it signify in light of the music?

Mark Esakoff: It’s a happy one with a similar vibe to our previous albums. The World and Latin elements have been prevalent throughout our catalogue. The title signifies getting blind sided by something wonderful. I could have called it “Angular Joy”.

Michael Whipple: It's very much classic Chasm to me, echoing a bit of the feel of the first record. But it gets a groove upgrade with drums in addition to the traditional congas and hand percussion…

mwe3: What keyboards and drums are featured on the Wood Wind & Skin album? Did Michael study drums or keyboards first?

Michael Whipple: Neither. It was flute that came first, sort of as a plan B. On Wood Wind & Skin, I play Allegra drums, made in Oregon, with Sabian, Zildjian and Paiste cymbals. There were congas, shakers, bells, chimes, afuche and guiro, all acoustic, as well as some more exotic drum sounds from a Korg Wavedrum and a Yamaha DTX12. Keyboard-wise, it was a combination of software instruments from Native Instruments and Spitfire Audio, as well as my trusty old Nord Electro 4d for the vintage mellotron parts, and my even trustier and older Korg M3 for the bass sounds on the tracks that I play bass on.

mwe3: How was the Wood Wind & Skin album recorded and are there a lot of overdubs? For example did you record live together and did any other artists guest and add other instruments?

Michael Whipple: No, this one is just the two of us. The only track that was recorded live together was "Praying For Rain." I later added the recorder and percussion. The usual work flow was Mark recording first, solo, to a click track, then I would take the tracks, edit, then add bass first, then drums, then keyboards. Then Mark came up to lovely Southern Oregon and recorded guitar solos and overdubs, as well as the vocals for "Silence." Then I added flutes and various little shizzly-bits, mostly on percussion…

mwe3: “Strange Currents” is another surf-rock type instrumental. Also the percussion work is amazing on that track. How many different percussion tracks are on that track?

Mark Esakoff: I think Mike was channeling his inner Ginger Baker on the drums for this one.

Michael Whipple: Thanks! It's drums, with an African-inspired counter-rhythm played with a Native Instruments software ensemble, and a little Wavedrum snuck in there, I think…

mwe3: Track 5, “On A Lark” is another uptempo track. All nylon string guitars on that one? Also, the drum sound is excellent. How about that harpsichord interlude with the flutes? It’s almost baroque surf! Is there sheet music for that track?

Mark Esakoff: There are two classical guitars with flute, harpsichord, bass and drums. The song is based on a melody with a descending doublet I wrote years ago that was never made into a song until now. This is the flute and harpsichord part. If there’s such a thing as baroque surf, then this might be it!

Michael Whipple: Sheet music? That's funny… No. Mark had the tune completely composed, and I heard it, and for some deranged reason, thought: Let's go for baroque! Yeah, THAT'S the ticket!" I think it worked out rather nicely. Mark has a cousin, Karil, who is an excellent traditional harpsichordist. I conjured this one up through the Korg M3.

mwe3: The piano solo in “Mountains” is stunning. It’s jazzy but with a Jobim like edge or maybe Milton Nascimento. I can picture Astrid Gilberto doing wordless vocals over it! Is that a good description?

Mark Esakoff: This is my favorite Whipple piano solo of everything I’ve heard him do.

Michael Whipple: Thank you! Very kind words, as Jobim is a hero of mine. I was hoping for a bit of Bach-like feel in that solo, as well.

mwe3: “Inner Jungle” has a kind primordial essence to it. Is it World Music or jazz and is there a kind of Eastern music sound to it? You have used electric sitars in the past right?

Mark Esakoff: We used electric sitars on our Bamboo Blue. But here on this song the plucked instrument is a luitar. A hybrid of a lute and a classical guitar. A thing that’s neither fish nor fowl. I played in a Middle Eastern scale to get that feeling. Afterwards, I suggested to Mike that this version be renamed “Inner Oasis”.

Michael Whipple: It is all of the above. It's a piece that started out as an improvisation, and has yielded three different views of its secrets, so far…

mwe3: Does “Agua Blanca” go back to a kind of soundtrack type riff? Is the track 1960s inspired and how many tracks are on “Agua Blanca”?

Mark Esakoff: It has a white-water rafting feel to me. But it didn’t start that way. I originally wrote it on piano as a slow contemplative sequence. Then tried it on guitar, speeded it up and it turned into this. I wanted it to be the sister song to “Agua Del Fuego” from the Panorhythmica album.

Michael Whipple: The strings are done with the Spitfire Audio Solo Strings module. I came up with the intro from the ashes of a failed bass line. I can hear the 1960s feel, but it wasn't something that we consciously tried to do with this track.

mwe3: “The Memory Box” is more jazz based. What kind of keyboard is Michael playing? The switch from the vintage synth to the piano sound is brilliant. That keyboard sound brings back great memories of the 1970s and what else can you inform us about that track?

Michael Whipple: The piano is Native Instruments software, played on a Roland 88-key hammer action MIDI controller. The Nord does the prog-nostalgic mellotron stuff in the bridge. The piece was originally written as a solo piano nocturne. Mark had the idea to make it into a Latin-style groove piece, which worked out rather nicely, as well…

mwe3: “Laguna Sunrise” is a Black Sabbath track? The credits list all four original members. When did you first hear that track and are you long time fans of Black Sabbath? I remember buying their first album on Warner Bros. Records back in the Fall of 1969 but this track, which I never heard before is an amazing rediscovery indeed. Why hasn’t this song been covered before? It’s from 1972? Yikes…

Mark Esakoff: Toward the end of the project, Mike asked me to write an acoustic guitar piece like I’d done on previous albums. Then I realized “Laguna Sunrise” was a song we’d covered in our live sets but hadn’t recorded. The original Black Sabbath song was an instrumental from the Vol 4 album where Tony Iommi played an acoustic guitar, backed by a string quartet. Black Sabbath always gave song-writing credits to all the members, regardless of who wrote the song. Anyway, I’ve always loved this tune. I was a big fan of their first four albums. Here I thought we’d just do a stripped-down version with luitar melody and baritone guitar chords.

Michael Whipple: Where were you in '72?

mwe3: “Element People” is very upbeat. It almost sounds like a Motown track or is that a hip-hop rhythm? What was the Chasm approach on that track?

Mark Esakoff: This is a piece based on a guitar riff I wrote that became the marimba line. The guitar melody here just came to me while washing dishes. And the middle section was a chord progression with a melodic bass line that Mike ended up turning into a Moody Blues-ish bridge. After this Mike plays a really cool distorted flute solo!

Michael Whipple: It's all set up by Mark's marimba riff. I tried to keep the drums straight and in the pocket, then did one of my favorite "pull the chair out" bridges, where the drums get taken out. I was doing a wink and a nod to an old, old Mark tune, "Peer Pressure," with the horns on the out choruses. Yeah, there's some Motown in there, for sure.

mwe3: “Arctic Crossing” is a great soundtrack type track. It’s remarkable in that the melody fits perfectly with the dynamic, which features just the right amount of echo and drive. What kind of rhythm tracks are featured?

Michael Whipple: The "failing steam engine" sound was a loop from an ancient software groove box I still use, called Stylus RMX. Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’, just like us… The rhythmic delays are from a Universal Audio software emulation of a Lexicon 480L digital reverb.

mwe3: The album closes with “The Silence Between The Words”, which is very different from the other tracks. Is there a Bowie connection there somehow? Is that the only track Mark plays electric guitar on and what guitars are played on that track? Is there a kind of trumpet sound? I could go for another track like that on the next Chasm album, which I hope won’t take ten more years to finish!

Mark Esakoff: This one’s our finale! It’s the only vocal track and electric guitar solo on the album. A big symphonic rockestra with lyrics about the sound of “nothing”. A reaction to the all the nOiSe that’s so pervasive in these times. I think the Bowie connection you hear might be in the outro of the song with the Mick Ronson-esque guitar solo engulfed by a string symphony. This section reminds me of the outro of “Moonage Daydream” from Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. But again, it wasn't something that we consciously tried to do.

Michael Whipple: Yeah, there's some Bowie there, and some vintage King Crimson or Moody Blues stuff with the heavy mellotrons…

mwe3: The Wood Wind & Skin cover art is great and in fact all your albums feature cool cover art. It’s colorful yet understated. What can you tell us about your cover art and who designs the cover art?

Mark Esakoff: Our self-titled first album cover came from a promo photo taken in a Venice Beach garden by photographer Jim Harper. Like the music, it had a natural lush outdoors kind of feel. The layout was done by a staff artist at Rainbow Records in Santa Monica, California. He had the idea of making the font in the word “CHASM” go from big-small-big signifying a chasm. During the recording of the second album Panorhythmica, Mike and I often discussed music in terms of visual imagery. When one of us would use a visual term like "smoke", "wood", "amber", etc. to describe music, the other would instinctively know what he meant. This visual-musical language became the theme of the album… “seeing with the ear/hearing with the eye.” Naturally, we wanted to come up with a visual-musical name for the album.

We started with "Panoramic Rhythms" and later turned it into Panorhythmica. The theme of “seeing with the ear/hearing with the eye” continued into the album cover artwork. I asked an artist friend, Tom McKeith to do album artwork. I had a concept for a face where the ear and the eye were switched around. Tom took the idea as a challenge knowing it would be difficult to create something like this without it looking scary or like a Picasso. I think he succeeded quite nicely. On the third and fourth albums I did the artwork. I wanted Bamboo Blue to have a nighttime jungle jazz feel, like much of the music. Hence, the green and blue bamboo foreground against a dark background. The Lovejoy Sessions cover has a close up of a hand playing classical guitar. This was intended to convey the intimacy and simplicity of the songs.

Wood, Wind & Skin is named after the sounds of the original instruments we used during the making of our first album, “CHASM”. At the end our photo shoot, Mike set up a shot using three instruments; classical guitar, alto flute and conga drum. We didn’t realize it at the time that it could signify Wood Wind & Skin until later and then named the album after the wood of the guitar, the wind of the flute, and the skin of the drum. It represents the sound of our legacy. I made the font for “CHASM” go from big-small-big as a little homage. I even wore the same shirt for the photo shoot that I wore on the cover of the original “CHASM” album.

Michael Whipple: That's all Mark; I just did my best to sabotage the photos…

mwe3: Can you list a few of your main musical influences and are there artists recording today that intrigue you as much as the legends of yesteryears?

Mark Esakoff: When I began playing guitar as a teenager my influences were The Beatles, Neil Young, Bowie and The Kinks. Studying in college, I became a fan of the West Coast cool jazz guys; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, etc... Later, the one who influenced me the most that has to do with Chasm music is Ottmar Liebert. His albums The Hours Between Night+Day and Opium were instrumental in forming the Chasm sound. Herbie Mann and Cal Tjader were also very influential. And Pat Metheny’s What’s It All About baritone acoustic guitar album was an influence on Wood, Wind & Skin. I find Beck very intriguing.

Michael Whipple: To show you how close to the tar pits I am, my favorite "new" band is Radiohead… I am still very much under the spell of the ECM sound, with their new artists, like Tord Gustavsen, as well as their classic ones, like Keith Jarrett, and the wonderful, groundbreaking work of the world acoustic trio Codona.

mwe3: So with Wood Wind & Skin out now what is Chasm planning for 2020? Have you done some shows in and around L.A. or other Western states? I realize touring a band is very expensive but how about an online show?

Mark Esakoff: No live shows scheduled at this time. But check back later… A music video would be fun to do!

mwe3: Are you always writing and recording music? What kind of album or musical direction would you like to go in during the 2020’s?

Mark Esakoff: Well… Mike is already off to a new solo project. It’s a piano, flute and string quartet album. He’s much more prolific than me. I’ve got plans to make some new music in my newly built detached home studio. Its named “Studio Guacamole” in honor of the giant avocado tree that towers over it. I think I’d like to get the guys from the Bamboo Blue sessions back together again and start doing some Chasm shows. Got plenty of rehearsal space!



 

 
   
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