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root salad f18

75 Dollar Bill Punked-up guitar/percussion banging from

Mali to Mississippi, Steve Hunt reckons. I

’ll confess that I knew nothing about 75 Dollar Bill when their second album arrived here for review. Housed in a piece of abstract art by one of the musicians, and enigmatically entitled Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/ Rhythm/Rock, it certainly looked intrigu- ing. Within minutes of listening, my initial “What the hell is this?” had been extended to “…and where have these people been all my life?!”

Consisting primarily of two musicians playing an electric guitar and percussion, the record seemed to be a distillation of tradi- tional trance music from Mali to Mississippi, filtered through a New York punk sensibility. Immediate attraction quickly escalated into evangelistic devotion. I reached a point where, driving home late one night listen- ing to BBC Radio 3, I startled my passenger by emitting an involuntary “Yes!” (with accompanying air-punch) when World On Three presenter Lopa Kothari declared it to be one of her favourite albums of the year.

It was, therefore, a no-brainer to head up to London when 75 Dollar Bill (percus- sionist Rick Brown and guitarist Che Chen) played Cafe OTO in June. The show was a scorcher, and the pair turned out to be two of the nicest people you could hope to encounter.

I start with the inevitable band origin question. “About twelve years ago I stum- bled upon the MySpace page of a duo called True Primes that Che was in with Rolyn Hu,” Rick recalls, “and I really liked what I heard. They were in Brooklyn so I started going regularly to their gigs. I saw Che play every instrument you could imag- ine – except guitar! I really liked both of them personally and loved their music and kept asking Che to come and jam with me and eventually I wore him down. He showed up at the irregular jam sessions that my wife Sue Garner and I were holding in our practice place, where the only rules were…” Che finishes the sentence… “no amplifiers that don’t fit in a lunch bag!”

“I guess when I went to that jam session at Rick and Sue’s I had been sort of working on guitar music again but didn’t really know what to do with it,” Che continues. “I’d stopped playing guitar for a few years but was starting to get back into it after hearing music from Mauritania and West Africa which connected a lot of dots for me. When Rick took this big, plywood crate off the shelf and hit the side of it I immediately had this feeling that this was the sound!”


h yes, the plywood crate. Rick pon- ders his unusual choice of instru- ment. “Simplicity is very important to me. I guess part of that could be laziness [laughs] but at a certain point I realised that this, my set-up now, is really very similar to what I used when I first start- ed playing music with my friends in 1978. I started just banging on whatever was around, then I got a drum, then another drum and a cymbal, and that was it for quite a while. That elemental sound is what I’ve really come back to. It’s now got a couple of decades of playing to help make it a little more musical than it was!”

Another distinctive component in the 75 Dollar Bill toolbox (although not used on Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/ Rock) is Che’s quarter-tone guitar.

“That’s how players re-fret their guitars in Mauritania,” he explains, “so they can accommodate their modes. I went there for two weeks in 2013 after hearing a compila- tion album called Wallahi Le Zein! which had a huge effect on me. It had that super- rhythmic, jagged blues thing that the north Mississippi stuff has and then it also had the microtonal quality. I had a crash course in Mauritanian guitar from Jeiche Ould Chigh- aly, who told me before I got there to bring a cheap guitar. He took me to a blacksmith’s shop where this guy got out a hacksaw, a pair of pliers and some superglue and just fixed it up for me.”

Both have full time jobs in New York, so touring is only ever an occasional activity, but music, as Rick so succinctly asserts, “is a neces- sity”. The music of 75 Dollar Bill doesn’t fit conveniently into any particular genre box but appeals to a broad audience. “You don’t have to analyse what we’re doing to get it, I hope,” says Rick, before Che chimes in with “We make a kind of music that people can pay attention to in a very focused way if they want to or get up and dance if they want to, but can also just hang out with their friends and talk, if they want to. It’s not some kind of precious thing for a concert hall!” F

Photo: Damian Calvo

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